Into the Woods? Or, Is Data Enough?

Environmental preservation has recently received some welcome if unexpected help from big data and the technology of remote global sensing.  In assembling a map of forest degradation worldwide that boggles the mind for its ability to comprehend the inroads of forest loss, Global Forest Watch has assembled a worldwide picture–shown below on North America–which transcends the question of big data by giving the land a coherence rent by incursions on forested land, rather than invested with national identity.  The layers of the interactive web map document the balance between forest loss and growth over the earth, inviting viewers to zoom in and out over regions to determine the scale, scope and intensity of forest loss in a striking record of environmental change.  By sensing the distribution of forested land at the amazingly high resolution of thirty yards, Global Forest Network mapped its fragmentation on a Google Earth platform whose fine detail provides an investigative tool to take the temperature of the human footprint on global forests.  The remotely-sensed records sets a new standard to measure the ecumene, or inhabited world, as it has rarely been seen–one impossible to assemble in its entirety even by walking into the woods.

tree cover north america

If the results are cognitively quite difficult to contemplate or process, the chronological and spatial collation of disruptions on local habitats creates a new sense of the readability of th map.  Cartographers have long rendered the “mathematical figure of the earth” in terms viewers can readily scan, translating spatial distributions into accurate formats, despite the multiple and inevitable distortions of any map.  Global projections have less evident persuasive functions in the interactive visualization wizards of web maps, whose surface showcase distributions by a spectrum that filters experience in multiple layers:  visualization wizards seem particularly apt tools of responding to problems of embodying data trends–and ffiltering data to generate images which embody exact distributions of forest degradation along roads, rivers, in regions of timber harvesting, and even in currently protected areas.

The maps of forest loss provide a record of future archeology of the anthropocene, akin to maps of temperature change or of our overheating world.  The destruction of some 250 million acres of forest since 2000 by human development threatens to bring the fragmentation of forests, compromising not only integrity of ecosystemsanimal habitats, and tropical rainforest, as well as increasing erosion, but the sequestration of carbon in ways that have irreversible impact on the planet.  We see the world with new eyes by measuring the extent of timber lost by something that approaches real-time measurement in the dramatic amps the World Resources Institute and Global Forest Watch have created online.  Although satellite measurements more often identified with surveillance, the high radiometric sensitivity are able to pinpoint a record of biomass loss across the world’s forested lands that set new standards for a running-time comprehensive map for charting the distribution of dramatic losses of  forested land–similarly to the detection of forest fires–in an increasingly expansive and loosely regulated market for wood.  Even without describing or identifying the causes of forests’ fragmentation, the layers of the web map offer an almost inevitable and irreparable image of the scope of forest loss.

The collation of growing forest loss within these maps raise questions about the sustainable practices in forest regions aptly characterized as the planet’s lungs.  Ten million sq km of forested land have been estimated to have been cleared between 1890 and 1980:   a further 500,000 square miles of lost heavily forested land were lost since the year 2000 that can be watched in stop-action accelerated real time in the web maps that display forest data, by geotracking the loss of a further million sq km of intact forest through 2013, in a sort of stop-action map that includes Indonesian forest fires, land clearance in Brazil and the Amazon, and the increased commerce in wood and forestry in Canada, Honduras, Indonesia, and much of South East Asia that seem an inexorable result of a voracious market for wood in a globalized economy.  As well as documenting the loss of some 8% of the economy since 2000, Global Forest Watch has embodied remotely sensed data in dramatic and disquieting to map the ongoing fragmentation of forested lands in a time-lapse map of some thirteen years–mapping the surface of the earth at a time when the range of anthropogenic incursions into forested lands, and the planet’s history, rapidly grew provoking discontinuities in previously intact forests and forested habitats of which we are only beginning to take stock, and whose disruptions threaten to radically change the planet’s lived geography.

The layers of forest change that are distinguished in the interactive web maps the Global Forest network devised present a color-coded basis to gauge the incursions into forested lands of the world by human industry and economy as well as fire.  They offer an image that is both the tabulation of a benchmark and a memory map that reminds us of the loss of forested land over thirteen years which is a cautionary note about the need for better stewardship of forested lands in a globalized economy–and, indeed, those sites that are most intensely aggrieved in the modern age.  In a less frequently cited monuments of cameralist thought, Saxony’s Chief Inspector of Mining, Hans Carl von Carlowitz described forms of the conservation and cultivation of native trees where his family had long run mines; the Sylvicultura Oeconomica which in 1713 perceptively responded to fears of a shortage of wood after the Thirty Years War, to benefit the common good by advocating sustainable practices of forestry.  Nachhaltende Nutzung provide a set of responsible practices, or “a blueprint for the guiding principle of our time,” and something of an early recognition of the intentional planning of practices for the conservation of wood “for posterity” that we might look to at a time when the fragmentation of intact forest rapidly grows, as the remote registration of the distribution of decreasing forest biomass detected remotely by MODIS satellites reveal that go beyond the sort of aerial photos of forest degradation below seen in the Rondonia in Brazil over a mere six years.

aster_deforestation_brazil Rondonia over six years

Although the reasons for the degradation of forests due to alternative anthropogenic causes–land conversion; timber extraction; degradation of land–is not clearly distinguished from loss of forests to fire or catastrophe, individual layers allow the reader to distinguish between potential factors that precipitate forest lost, and uncover varied reasons for the growing crisis in sustainability of forests worldwide, as technology provides a useful medium to measure effects on the natural world. The dynamic qualities of static maps is enhanced by  suggestive chromatic variations, the ability of LandSat 8 to create a remotely-sensed picture of the world in but sixteen days allows dynamic records of land change to offer the chance of intensive reading and investigation not earlier possible.  While the causes of wood loss cannot be clearly discriminated, to be sure, the layering of maps provides a basis to take stock of the extent and locations of wood loss.  The layers of web-based maps invite viewers to investigate multiple potential narratives about the shifting ecosystems in a rapidly changing world.

The layers of the map suggest a new way to embody data to view its palpable effects.  By importing data that they open or stake directly on the surface of a map or spatial database,web-based mapping offer a supple interactive medium to situate narratives in a global expanse–from situating the relative geographic densities of sightings of hummingbirds–


to relative geographical variations of biodiversity–


The remote sensing of incursions into intact layers of tree cover by Modis satellites provide an even more sensitive tool to display data of habitat change and ecosystems alike, and indeed to trace the incursions of a clandestine economy of wood on areas of forest that remain threatened, from clearing for agricultural areas, propspecting for palm oil, chainsaw logging, or bring of peat.  For remote sensing can record at startlingly high resolution disturbing incursions, breaks and absences in forest expanse and the distribution of intact forest and tree cover at the considerably high resolution of thirty meters, creating a tragically compelling record of anthopogenic disturbances of subtropical and other forested lands regions that comprise some 37.3% of the world’s total land area.  The record is something of an inverse negative image of the expanding consumption of wood in the world’s more populated areas, and sets something of a watermark in the growing dangers of the apparent lack of oversight of the global consumption of wood.

The stacking of layers of data reveals a particularly striking record of natural degradation and loss of forests, that details the increasing intrusions into intact forests and tree cover worldwide in ways that suggest the continued value of synthesizing an almost pictorially present record of our increasingly poor management of the valued resource of forested lands–both for the species who live in them and the biodiversity they nourish, as well as the atmosphere they help preserve.  These losses are materialized in especially compelling graphic terms in renderings of the comprehensive record of the incursions of lands that have created a steep loss of wooded biomass.

Global Forest Loss since 2000-13Global Forest Change, published by Hansen, Potapov, Moore, Hancher et al.

The colored layering of data in the web maps devised for Global Forest Watch create a legible balance sheet for accurate viewing the disappearance of forested lands, coloring tree cover gain and loss at an amazingly exact resolution of up to thirty meters.  The cartographical accounting of tree cover loss–and forest degradation–for viewers to begin to process and come to terms, balancing magenta losses of biomass with planting of new trees in deep blue.

Tree Cover Loss

The global scope of the data Global Forest Watch has synthesized in CartoDB offers a point of entrance to a dramatic narrative of loss that can be measured against the globalization of an economy for wood that knows few restrains.

1.  Globalization increasingly forces us to try to conceive as well as calculate the steep variations in the consumption and use of resources worldwide.  The increased variations–and variability–in geographical description of how we consume resources suggests the need for new ways to imagine geographic space that foreground its alteration that reveal the huge losses of biomass worldwide over time with a precision that sets new notions for the accuracy and possibilities for the persuasive powers of maps as images.  The charting of the lost biomass of forested lands creates a constructive relation of tragic narrative of loss, to be sure, using thematic maps of the physical changes in the global landscape to direct attention to a range of narratives of loss, and alert us to multiple possible narratives of both loss and potential ways of averting impending future losses by rendering visible the loss of forests and  invite investigation of their causes and origins.  If in many ways the history of the most recent periods is both hardest to tell and to try to comprehend, the multiple thematic maps of tree cover loss highlight the changing landscape of tree cover and carbon stock–and the threats to intact forests that wood use poses–that provide an investigative tool to examine the emerging threats to intact tropical forests and wooded ecosystems in ways that viewers can visually process and cognitively digest.

For the totality of forest loss that the interactive thematic maps of the Global Forest Watch synthesize and render reveal a record of intersecting ecosystems that foreground questions of the continuity, density, and loss of connectivity in forested lands that raises serious questions of concern about their increased fragmentation.  By providing a global synthesis about the use, degradation, and replanting of forested areas and trees worldwide, the tally of global biomass that they reveal provide an elegantly  color-coded record of the limits of sustainability of our forests.  The sustained silence about the contribution of the destruction of worldwide forests to the release of greenhouse gasses in the planet is a deep deception that the illusion of the limitless potential for the expansion of a market for wood and wood products perpetuates in a particularly insidious way.  The global thematic maps of remotely sensed presence of wood and forest density in a remarkably accurate manner provide a necessary corrective.  By revealing the loss of forest cover and the fragmentation of forested lands in a zoomable fashion, the thematic maps invite not only reflection on a tragic narrative of the memory of loss–as they do–but might perhaps incite similarly global strategies of protection and conservation, helping to ken the steep risks that globalization portends to the possibility of a truly sustainable future.

At a time when industry increasingly rests upon an ability to extract revenues in whatever ways possible, the sacrifice of forest lands demands increasing attention.   Global Forest Network has opportunely responded to the need for mapping a totality of forest degradation by assembling a remotely registered image of the scope and extent of biomass loss in forests worldwide.  By mapping an effective tally of trees planted and forested land lost over time in a time-lapse fashion, one can visualize the unsustainable rhythm of an all too rapidly growing footprint of the loss not only of habitat but of reginos that might be called the planet’s lungs.  Their web-based maps reveal offer indices and tools to reflect on the impact of globalization on forested lands.  They marry technology to reveal a record of natural loss.  As continue to fence with the increased incursions of globalization on natural resources worldwide.

The 2013 map of the shrinking forests of the world sensed remotely from 2000 to 2012 used the first high-res comprehensive global map of forest degradation to craft an alarming story by directing detailed attention to the question of costs:  synthesizing 654,178 individual images to model human and natural forest loss, the result is a persuasive record of human geography, delineated in the rich color palette of CartoDB, inspired on one devised by Cynthia Brewer:  losses of forest are strikingly rendered hot pink to purplish magenta, fire red-orange, tree-cover pea-green against intact forest rendered a rich kelly green.  Rather than retain ational boundaries as the prime units to parse ecological change and man’s impact on the environment, these maps of the sustainability of forested lands provide multiple layers to examine the use of wood worldwide–and contemplate the ecological and economic implications of a huge reduction of over 500,000 square miles of formerly healthy forests by for the first time charting the local loss of forests in an accurate and globally consistent manner–conspicuously marking variations in land use in a year-by-year distribution, discriminating between forest land lost and gained to shine a lens on the question of the sustainability of forests and the fragmentation of forests, tracing the expansion of our carbon footprint through the ongoing scope of forest degradation and loss that has expanded with a demand for wood worldwide with major risks to the surrounding environment.

The survival of a coherent network of forested land is a central to the survival of ecosystems, and to local livelihoods of a large range of humans, as well as to the global storage of carbon in the ecosphere:  the hugely negative effects of forest degradation stand to contribute to upwards of a fifth of carbon emissions, as well as to have disastrous effects of animal habitat and local ecosystems and biodiversity, and an image of the loss of forest cover and the fragmentation of formerly intact forests provides a compelling record of human-made and natural incursions into wooded lands from 2000-2013, revealing the uneven distribution of the exploitation of forested lands in a globalized economy.  Although the largest regions of intact forest are located in Tropical and Subtropical Forests (45.3%) and Boreal Forests (43.8%), and almost 64% are located in Canada, Russia or Brazil, they face distinctly different challenges of industrial logging, oil and gas extraction, and natural clearing:  even without distinguishing patterns of land use, the maps suggest the incursions of human influences on these and other particularly fragile forested landscapes, in ways that trace a narrative of the distribution of forest losses in the new millennium, and more importantly the balance between forest loss and gain.

If the loss of forests truly accounts for more than the sum total of carbon emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, and ships every year, and create a more compelling way to combat climate change, as well as acting to purify air, preserve watersheds, and foster biodiversity, and prevent impending dangers of erosion, the shrinking area of forested land provides a particularly sensitive barometer that demands to be on the global consciousness and a site for restraining consumption.  Indeed, once stewardship of forests are included within measures of carbon emissions, tropical rainforest-rich countries like Brazil and Indonesia–both growing economies, to be sure–jump into the group of the top ten global polluters–a fact concealed by the expansive international market for wood.  Rather than only measure the metrics of forest loss, the rates of forest degradation in different areas create an interesting record of the inequities and incursions into forested lands, which has striking parallels to the disappearance and lack of protection of community land-rights in the face of economic demand.

How to calibrate the role of pollution that results from forest degradation?  The layered web maps raise the possibility of tally that could lead to better stewardship of forests, and pose a call to manage “carbon stocks” of which we have few comparably accurate measures.  They may provide a significant key to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, indeed, by charting the threats to carbon stock of sensitive areas from tropical forests–from the Amazon to central Africa from Equatorial Guinea to Rwanda and to Indonesia–to North America, by visually highlighting the balance of intact woodlands unlike a static map, by conspicuously marking loss of woodlands in pink/magenta and using orange to note carbon stock threatened by tree-cover loss to trace the all too human incursions in the tropical forests, balanced against the scattered tree-cover gain noted by periwinkle blue.  The result is to make the land speak in an almost palpable way by inserting crucial layers to map the shrinking landscapes of intact forest, continuity in tree-cover extent, and note protected regions, biodiversity hotspots, current fires, and regions used for logging, mining, or wood fiber plantations, so that we can, even with the introduction of only a few layers, sense the risks to forests in Amazonia or Indonesia that are particularly sensitive to globalized markets for wood.

Tree loss to 2013 and tropical carbon stock

Wood biomass in INdonesia

One can as easily add a layer revealing the primary forest of Indonesia that maps the extent of its coherence, and allows continued depletion of forested lands in the region to be read in relation to its most densely forested regions, beside the depletion of forests in the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Papua New Guinea:

Indonesian Forests and Thai:Philipines

The result is a brilliant visualization able to mediate the concept of sustainability in its multiple layers.

The idea of such a comprehensive map of forests derive from synthesizing the MODIS images on a Google Earth engine to trace the contours of such a footprint. They can be read interactively by adding, removing, or toggling between specific layers displaying the ever-shrinking quantity of “intact forest landscapes”–regions untouched by human economic activity, settlements or industry of 500 sq km without evidence of habitat fragmentation, regions distinguished by tree loss or gain, and regional tree cover.  Although much wood and fiber has concentrated on economic value rather than ecological effects, the interactive map brilliantly illuminates the changing contours of forest landscapes worldwide, including land-use change, log forests sawn for lumber, fires, and clearcutting over time that provide a baseline for stewardship and management, revealing the extent and nature of the loss of forest extent in South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Global Forest Watch has assembled stunning interactive web maps that invite readers to investigate the relative imprints in each region over twelve years, creating a valuable historical document of deeply monitory functions, if as well as a stunning record of historical change on a global scale.  The significant role of forest in contributing to the livelihood of over a billion of the world’s the poorest dwellers suggest the economic as well as ecological imperative of restricting losses that would be impossible, if not difficulty, to ever recuperate or restore.

forestsEndangered Amazonian Forests in French Guyana

The remote nature of many vulnerable areas of forestry creates a clear need for the globalized mapping of forest loss–if only to offer a needed corrective to the globalized market for commodified wood, which enters markets with almost no sense or measure of its site of origin, and with few reports of the degradation of forested lands that result in such particularly sensitive ecosystems in tropical forests.  The interactive web maps may address the considerable alienation of most commodities markets–or even markets for wood and wood-products–from the very habitats and ecosystems that forests create, and the levels of unsustainability of the current market for often indiscriminately forested wood and wood-products.

Indeed, many early modern maps reveal the situated nature of local interdependency between peoples and forested lands–and the commerce with wooded lands–that is so often abstracted from market of wood, characterized as they are by the relative alienation of patterns of consumption from the survival of forests.   The sensitivity of early modern notations of forested areas nicely suggests something like a need to change our practices of global mapping to track the  interdependence of urban economies and patterns of consumption on forests that are increasingly far flung rather than surround our lived environments, or the absence of a clear sense of forested areas as rich resources of life and commerce on which a built city–such as this image of the merchant city of Nuremberg, drawn and painted on linen by its own early sixteenth-century surveyor, Erhard Etzlaub, which suggests a particularly complex understanding of forest management and use in depicting the considerable levels of forest density proudly preserved around Nuremberg.


Erhard Etzlaub’s View of Nuremberg from the North with the Sebalder and Lorenzer Wald, opaque colors on parchment (1515)

If the Nuremberg surveyor Erhard Etzlaub conveyed the wealth of the surrounding forest to the city’s economy, drawing the clear boundary between the forests and cleared land, Venetian surveyor Christoforo del Sorte attentively sketched the forested regions of the especially rich interior hinterland, or Terrafirma, that would continue to provide so much of Venice’s timber were detailed with a similar care in his 1556 map of the northern Veneto, whose aestheticized painted view reveal a similar consciousness of a relation to forested lands, even in a time of land-clearance:
C Sorte north of Veneto 1556

As well as provide images of a landed patriciate, the mapping of forested areas suggested the lustrous habitat that many modern drawn maps lack.

Da Sorte GuardaLake Garda and Surrounding Areas (oil on panel) by Cristoforo Sorte (fl.1510-95)  —  Museo Correr, Venice, Italy

The relative absence of maps that effectively preserved an affective record of forest loss has been designed to meet the hugely magnified loss of forests worldwide, and especially in equatorial regions where they seem to have fallen prey to a growing global hunger for consuming wood that cannot be easily sustained.  The series of zoomable maps offer an invaluable basis and provocation to reflect on the virtues of data and the limits of best rendering data in visual form.  More specifically, they provide a basis to use maps as a tool to model the levels of sustainability that exist in forests worldwide, by the actual mapping of both forest loss and forest degradation worldwide that has been increasingly conceived as the growing ecological footprint created through a decline of worldwide forests that have never been able to be satisfactorily visualized or conceived of in their totality.

2.  The Canadian economist William Rees introduced the conception of ascertaining the impact humans exercise over natural surroundings as a “footprint”–using a term developed by his student Matthis Wackernagel with him in hopes to conceptualize the undeniable traces that they left on the environments in which they live, by analogy to the “footprint” of a computer resting on a workplace desk.  The wide currency and quick adoption of the term suggests that ready apprehension of an unsustainable set of practices to consume resources that exceeded natural abilities for their replenishment, long before the archeological definite that led our own age to be described as the anthropocene.  Although Rees introduced the term of a “footprint” predominantly as a conceptual tool, it has also begged visualization due to its concreteness, and ready connotation as a tangible record of impact–and as such demands to be mapped–it has often been taken too literally as a guide to creating data visualizations.

The linking of levels of emissions to the lifestyles of residents of individual countries is telling, but risks the sense of reminding one of the difficulty of changing differences of consumption as if they were an inevitable cultural choice–and have the odd consequence of removing the figure of speech of the “footprint” from a logic of sustainability, in this image of Stanford Kay, which relies on a bubble map to pose a charge to the most popular polluters, but tends to obscure the scale of the question and its possible impact on the world–the rainbow colors allow us to parse the relation of pollution to continents to some extent, but make it truly difficult to assemble a picture of sustainability, or of the global consequences of the expanding carbon footprint of the earth’s inhabitants.  While we don’t doubt that China creates the largest carbon emissions in Asia, what measures of sustainability need to be taken or could be proposed?  Need we only accept the habits of consumption adapted in the world’s most populous nations or can we curb them?

Kay Two Feet-  national and per capitaStanfordKay 

A static if cumulative atlas of carbon emissions was produced by the Energy Information Administration and ran in The Guardian in 2011, in the form of an actual terrestrial map, which charted both the relative contribution of countries to the global footprint in the millions of tonnes of carbon emissions it generates, and a notation of their relative augmentation or decrease in 2008-9:  the infographic provide a document used as something of a running tally of CO2 emissions per country, as a way to measure the reduction of emissions agreed as a goal at the Kyoto protocol, and was imaged by artists Mark McCormick and Paul Scruton of the world’s distribution (available as a PDF file) that took a traditional terrestrial map as an alternative visualization of the greatest emissions by continent–and laying the blame at the doorstep of specific countries.

An Atlas of PollutionThe Guardian

Chuluun Togtokh of Ulaanbaatar gave greater geographical concreteness to similar statistics in a pointedly polemic manner when he retabulated a the levels of countries’ levels of sustainability in a brilliant revisionary cartography, including control of carbon emissions within what constitutes the United Nations’ Human Development Index–a metric synthesizing life-expectancy, literacy and purchasing power–but which omits sustainable growth as a relevant criteria of development:  by reminding readers of the ethical imperative to cease ignoring the costs of the greatest polluters in the world, lest we fear to acknowledge the ever-steeper competition for dwindling resources that “growth” perpetuates, Togtokh’s measurements present the ability to remap the question of “economic development” in ways that include environmental stewardship as a criteria:


As vice-chair of Mongolian IGBP Global Change National Committee, Togtokh chastised as much as reminded the UN and other international agencies of the folly of ignoring sustainability or carbon footprints in calculation development.  The map reveals the importance of what data we include in the map, and what story we decide to make it tell.  The visualizations of forest loss provide a far more finely grained story of carbon emissions, less artificially flattened along national lines, and focusses on one variable in need of urgent response.  And at a time when humanity’s demand on nature exceeds natural resources by twice, such footprints might be more compellingly visualized and communicated.  Forest degradation provides a particularly relevant index of global impact, both a record of compromised carbon storage and since the destruction of biomass in land-use change creates a massive 17-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions and irremediable loss of habitat for vertebrate animals.

3.  The vivid contrasts in geolocated data within the interactive web maps create a dynamic panorama that tally tree loss that seem to reveal an actual imprint of the human economy on deforested lands–far beyond what it was during the entire twentieth century due to new techniques of clear-cutting.


Darius Kinsey (1861-1945), Crescent Camp Number One (c. 1930)

forestfragmentationMAINSavannah River Site Corridor Experiment examining the effects on habitats on the edges of forest  
Photograph:  Ellen Damschen

The global and regional maps parse local data changes in the size, fragmentation, and density of forests over different periods of time that provide a crucially informative tool to examine the rapid pace of our apparent losses and rabid degradation of forested lands–losses of which many, if not most, are blithely unaware.  The dramatic coloration of the interactive map jointly charts the diminution and growth arboreal expanse worldwide to alert viewers to the impact of the footprint of forest loss and clearings.  In ways that are easily apprehended, bright colored magenta pink call attention to the relative loss of forests in different areas that one can scrutinize in zoomable fashion, to generate legible maps that show forest degradation that convert available data with a precision that seems almost instinctively legible far more dynamic and more legible than a bubble map that is abstracted from the land.

The zoomable record of terrain allows one to track the points of forest loss against intact forests in such disparate regions as Amazonia or around Lake Victoria in the Congo or the Northwest Territories, tracking the extent to which such loss outstrips any areas of forest gain (highlighted in periwinkle blue) and allows one to observe the intensity of loss across land.  Even if they include few words, the variability of color and hue provide a case where the land speaks, and the cumulative loss of tree-cover can be examined in detail across borders, and over a twelve-year period of time in which the forces of globalization have made their impact felt worldwide:

Amazon Footprint?

footprint in Central Africa

And to observe the scale of the “footprint” at a considerable high resolution, taking into account the losses of tree cover that are registered in relation to the areas of “intact forest landscape” that is registered in dark kelly green, with small areas of forest growth noted in periwinkle blue, in ways that synthesize a record that shows the degrees to which tree loss is exceeding the capacities of local ecosystems that may be particularly fragile indeed, and forever transfigured:

lake victoria pallette

Weirdly predictable patterns of tree loss line what seem to be rivers that run into older intact forests in the Central African Republic:

tree loss in CAR

The areas devoted to lumbering across the Northwest Territories can be noted in an overlay of tan, setting it off from the areas of considerable tree cover loss that are relatively widespread within it, but spread with a terrifying concentration of clustering in areas of intact forest landscape as well:

Canada forests lumber

The very notion of the visibility of a footprint in these satellite maps materialize the concept of a sustainable footprint that Mathis Wackernagel first developed, and is associate with both Wackernagel and his teacher Rees as a fundamental critical tool of ecological economics.  The recent definition of “intact forest landscape” provides a crucial parameter by which the maps invest materiality in the notion of a “footprint” which build upon desires for sustainability, and a mapping construct that allows one to ascertain and observe forest degradation in new ways, and indeed the extent to which most industrialized countries have far outstripped their “carrying capacity” of their lands.

Indeed, the problems of sustainability have been deeply exacerbated by globalized trade that Rees and Wackernagel’s case of the need to reduce our ecological footprint–a notion all too readily directed at a few nations, rather than recognized as important as an issue of global ecological change–demands an ability to confront the problem of ecological overshoot that would have as its most obviously persuasive source the form of a world map whose uniform distribution allows us to target the biomass in need of protection.

amazon_soil-Guenter Fischer:World of Stock

It is striking, however, that if the notion of  a “footprint” provides a reflective tool to take consciousness of outstripping global resources, it has been widely adapted in ways that almost excavate it of the attention to ecosystems.  Most recently, the notion of the “footprint” has enjoyed far wider currency as a cartographic conceit, diluting its original intent in an almost comic turn, when adopted by the US Department of Defense in 2008 to illustrate the global dominance of the presence of military forces over an unprecedentedly far-flung portion of the globe, in an apparently odd appropriation warping Rees’ original intent.

DoD Footprint 2008

If one feels need for taking break from the depressing metaphorical use of footprints global and military, a nicer appropriation of the footprint lies in how vineyard-owner Bonnie Harvey decided in 1968 to include her personal footprint as the playful logo to evoke the stamping of a grape harvest, before the widespread adoption of Wackernagel’s phrase–in this “wet” footprint, if its connotations of local eating carry far more self-satisfied semantics of the California coast–albeit in ways that are now marketed by Gallo wines–as well as a sponsor of fun-runs across the state, playing on the image of the former tradition of treading grapes in vats by foot to extract their juice in annual crushings:


With the sort of untrammeled demand for commodities and consumption that has led us to double the Gross World Product in less than twenty years, driven not only by population growth but a rapid expansion of per capita energy expenditure, the importance of acknowledging and recognizing the accelerated appropriation of global resources and natural capital seems increasingly tied to crafting such an “ecological footprint” analysis in adequately persuasive terms.

Yet it is reassuring that the growing footprint of the globalized economy on forest worldwide have encouraged the adoption in Canada of a Plan Nord, in which the same government often challenged for protecting foresting rights has promised to protect some 50% of the forested land above the 49th parallel in the province of Quebec, in a major accord to protect intact forests in the northern part of the country from mining, industry, lumber and development, that commitment to conservation that provides a possible basis for similar program of protecting forests in the Northwest Territories, and much of the world.

Plan Nord

4.  The peculiar construction of the maps of forest degradation prepare a record invites examination through the concept of a “footprint” as both a metaphor and figure of speech implying an ecological balancing act.  If Longfellow described the hope to “leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time” able to inspire exemplaric lives that “can make our lives sublime,” the maps of dramatically diminishing forest-cover detail a threat that, while the public commentator and self-styled linguist William Safire once disdained this apparent “March of the Metaphoric Footprints” as a migration of meaning that seemed sloppy in its claims, and Safire, although long pro-corporate, may have been upset by the ready currency that it gave a metaphor which barely indicated the scale of its actual impact and, even moreso, the notion that an Emersonian image of untampered nature that “shines into the eye and heart” to create a “perfect exhilaration” was far from what Safire sought it worth the time to preserve.  But the incommensurability of the image might have been a large part of the problem for the New York Times pedant.

The conceptual tool of Rees and Wackernagel, however, did not build on the notion of the “virgin land” and “untrammeled” landscapes as free from human impact, pace Howard Zahniser, as would be evident in not leaving evidence or footprints from a visit, but to suggest a recognition of just how great such footprints could be.  Wackernagel adopted the more pedestrian metaphor of the spatial footprint that a computer left on a desk, to suggest an empirical index and analytical tool that could be quantified.  The economics of ecological footprints provides less a figurative than an analytic tool, able to be identified and measured by global hectares, rather than by marks in the sand, and measured against the biocapacity of the earth, and a question of the consciousness of individual impacts on the environments in which one lives.  As Togtokh calculated, the footprint seemed to decisively grow in countries where levels of consumption seem so widespread to outstrip consciousness of environmental impact.

Emerson imagined the glory of nature from a subjective position, “my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,” as triggering a place where “all mean egotism vanishes: and “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” in a transcendent moment, where in the “line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature,” the notion of an ecological footprint returns to the material dependence of man on nature.  How to map that dependence, and describe the amount of land required to support a person, and indeed the ecological footprints of economies, and the appropriation of land in each, poses a question that the MODIS satellite images help map in a cognitively persuasive fashion.


But it is hard to see how such an ecological impact could be adequately visualized or grasped.  Safire may have been intentionally obtuse in pooh-poohing the footprint’s use as a figure of speech.   Wackernagel and Rees strove to indicate the impact humans exercise on the environment, the image of an idyllic erasure of egotism and uplifting to infinite space was less the aesthetic than a hope to minimize the impact of human activity on the landscapes.  The constraints or limits on hopes for sustainability have often been charged, based on data of national policy, as a failure of ecological responsibility, or of running against the limits of what is able to be sustained by natural resources:  and the sensitivity of the biomass of forests as a reserve of CO2 provides a uniquely tangible instance of such a national responsibility.  While often not included in the maps we make of carbon emissions, which distinguish countries by directly translating data of million metric tonnage of carbon produced–the map’s tones suggest a scolding of lifestyle, habits or inefficient policy controls, but fail to render the emission-levels in tools of critical response.  Indeed, most maps root emissions them in levels of industrial production and population density that provide limited possibilities of being grasped save in a very broad sense of differences of lifestyle or something so broad as if it were a cultural choice in consumption patterns.

map_CO2_emissions_Patz05University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab

The alternative of parsing data in slightly more sophisticated manners on a scale of sustainability can foreground surpassing an threshold of biological capacity of local resources, alerting us to where the planet exceeds its biocapacity in hectares, which shows, again, the concentration of populations within those areas that individual consumption exceeds the biocapacity of regions, creating a heuristic tool to understand the inadequate relation of markets to levels of natural goods worldwide.

footprint:biocapacityGlobal Footprint Network–Wikipedia

Although there is some value in giving a embodied form to Wackernagle’s metaphor for measuring the regional release of gaseous emissions and carbons in the popular infographic of Stanford Kay’s Information Graphics Studio, intended for the international edition of Newsweek, but popularized in the Atlantic, the foot-shaped bubble map metaphorically removes the “footprint” from measuring environmental impact on the globe.  It seems a playful reference to the measurement of gasseous emissions, able to be perused to note the extent of the problem, but not to communicate the impact of emissions on the world–and hence perhaps of more elegance than either hortatory or monitory value.


Kay’s map of Carbon emissions unsurprisingly located the most populous nations as the greatest emitters–China is at the ball of the foot and the United States as its heel–but in a complimentary view of per capita emissions instructively altered the picture a bit–suddenly, the Virgin Islands appear at the foot’s ball, and not the populous United States.

Tracking_Carbon_EmissionKay Two Feet-  national and per capita

Despite the infographics’ elegance, does there remain a risk that such a statistical distribution of emissions distracts us from the changes that globalization has wrought in our environment, and the drastic degradations of the forests that are themselves the consequence of such elevated levels of consumption?  And does it detract from the degree to which the destruction of biomass and carbon storage provides an equally looming biological danger, of proportions that we have not been able to fully grasp?  Indeed, by revealing the shared nature of what remain common problems of the loss of carbon storage worldwide–and animal habitat–the map departs from a nation-by-nation mapping of dangers, in ways that might seem to inherit nineteenth or twentieth century classifications incommensurate with a problem of truly global proportions of the loss of biomass, by spacing and ordering of uniquely obtained data of forest loss that the viewer can readily grasp, rather than being forced to confront in all its monolithic immensity.

The problem is one of organizing data in a suitably readable form.  For such powerfully damning visualizations, while embodying a footprint, often remain quite disembodied from the nature of the losses of resources or generation of waste that they imply, and ask whether the display of data is enough:  the limitations on engaging with the maps suggest that the display of data is so overwhelming to ifrustrate or press against the limits of representation, and discounts the effectiveness of how meaning can concretized in maps that direct attention to the disappearance of resources and the alterations of carbon footprints on the land.  The detail of the Global Forest Watch web map is brilliant in the ability to investigate a uniform global standard for accelerating degradation that help us grasp meaning in all the mess, in ways that almost make one start to think good things about Google Earth, as surprising as that might be.

5.  The image of loss of forested lands–and loss of trees–provides a concise statement of the growth of our collective carbon footprint.  Although one continues to wonder whether data is enough to represent the compromise of the biosphere, or how global footprints can be more crisply visualized than the bubble maps of carbon footprints, the loss of lumber is revealed with indelible accuracy on these maps’ face that make them more readily graspable, their content most cognitively persuasive and suitably compelling in impact to impel viewers to navigate local details in their surface:  the distribution of data in this map is rendered more transparent and uniquely able to preserve a sense of local impact in less disembodied manner.  The below distribution indeed concretizes the local lossses of tree-cover that MODIS has registered over twelve years–or from 2001 to 2012–in ways that remind us of the reduction of tree cover over that decade not only in the American south or shores of Mexico, but in much of California, Washington, and Oregon, and across British Columbia with a texture difficult not to admire.

loss:gain north america w:o xGlobal Forest Watch

By the insertion of layers, the map’s snapshots of the earth’s surface can be investigated by drop-down menus, allowing one to map tree loss across regions of intact forests or tree cover, to calibrate the nature and consequences within a picture of existing treecover loss in, say, California:

tree cover loss california GFW 2001-13Global Forest Watch

or to map the targeted intensity of wood losses on the edges of denser woodlands in Central American forests in Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras against regions in Mexico, using data that might otherwise be less often assumed to be interchangeable and equally valid:

Deforestation in Central America and Mexico against tree coverGlobal Forest Watch

6.  The huge value of the dynamic cartographic synthesis by Google Earth Engine lies in the comprehensiveness and accuracy with which it allows us to start to comprehend forest loss.  Indeed, elegant search functions allow users to detect, despite some questions that could be raised about the ability of the MODIS satellite to detect lighter forests and brush, rapidly advancing variations in forest-loss worldwide.

The visualization allows one to scrutinize the relative extent of the forest cover’s local degradations worldwide and over time:  the amassing of this data on a Google Earth Engine was achieved in several days that offered both a compelling advertisement for its readiness to process geospatial data, and the possibility of modeling the relative intensity of losses of forest land in a brightly vivid dayglo green, creating a compelling graphic that testifies to the depletion of forested lands worldwide that clearly coincides with globalization:  indeed, the comprehensive tracking of the lost of forests in fluorescent green areas from Malaysia and Indonesia to the Congo and Brazil, and from Cambodia to Russia to Central America and northern Canada reveals substantial clearance of forests, independent if linked to forest fires and protected forestland.  The introduction of layering of this map from remotely-sensed data from MODIS satellites of degrees of forest loss moreover creates a compellingly synthetic record of land-use.

waterspace in world?World Resource Institute

The chromatic variations among our shrinking forests worldwide was remapped to model the loss of tree cover worldwide from 2000-12, courtesy the World Resource Institute, is perhaps more shocking–and more easy to know how to respond to–than global warming.  The illustration of a loss of tree cover since the year 2000, which has doubtless progressed far more extensively since, suggests something like a plague of deforestation, which far outweighs tree cover gain in the same period–over this period, the loss of 2.3 million square kilometers constitutes something like an atrophying of the forestlands worldwide, approximated by the WRI to equal the disappearance of some fifty soccer fields of forest each and every minute of every day, for long over a decade, at the same time as only .8 million square kilometers of forest was replanted.  If by 2005, about 30% of the land on earth was covered by forest, just under four billion hectares, the increasing loss and degradation of forests poses an ongoing challenge.

The data reveals what is happening to the world’s forests in a globalized economy.  If the amount of energy expended on clearing forests alone has been estimated to constitute between 12-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2012, the storage of carbon in forests–and the forest’s value as a source of economic livelihood–are both threatened by the dangers of deforestation worldwide.  The detailed interactive map that was produced by real-time feeds of a MODIS satellite and synthesized by a Google Earth engine combines sensed layers of forest depletion over time to create a suitably sensitive platform to monitor forested land, using work of Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland to map forest cover  in that suggests a dramatically new way that we might understand and comprehend the effects of globalization on our concepts of the inhabited world, by toggling back and forth on a sliding bar to reveal the scope and scale of forest depletion from 2000 to 2013.

The data is striking–but is it ever enough as an effective embodiment of the scale or varied concentrations of such an expansive loss of biomass?

tres loss 2000-2012Forest Loss World-Wide (Global Forest Watch)

To an extent, the maps of tree loss that were created by the Global Forest Watch, a partner of the University of Maryland, use satellite readings to refine the forest/non-forest global mosaic that the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) assembled from Aperture Radar aboard the Advanced Land Observing Satellite DAICHI.  The composite imaging of an accurate global distributions of forested land, at a resolution within ten meters, called attention to the degree to which forest degradation increased CO2 emissions created for a 2010 summit of the Group on Earth Observation in Beijing that set a new standard in remotely observed calibration of earth cover that starkly foregrounded threatened areas.

20101021_daichi_1 20101021_daichi_3

The extremely high resolution of these images created a compelling watermark for future forest loss, and directed attention to deforestation that provoked the United Nations to declare 2011 as the Year of the Forests that celebrated heroes of local land management.  The layering of measurements of forest loss over time in the MODIS maps offered a comprehensively view the effects of forest loss  and view tree loss over time.

What can explain such a radical augmentation of deforestation, concentrated in relatively specific areas?  Despite the improving curbs on forest loss in Brazil, for example, the deep increases in forest losses in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Malaysia, as well as Paraguay and Bolivia, offset any gains across the earth, and suggest a lack of orientation toward conservation or stewardship, or an economics of sustainability of the sort that is only beginning to be championed–if Paraguay had the highest ration of forest loss to gain, Cambodia and Malaysia among the highest rates of loss and Indoniesia the greatest increase in forest loss in the period under study, when the rate of local annual deforestation more than doubled, suggesting the complete lack of any safeguards for sustainable forestry.  Rather than being based on self-reported numbers, as is often the case, the Landsat picture that emerges is effectively able to balance the objective disappearance of forested land in ways that the principal scientists broke down by year, with the aqua and red corresponding to 2013 and 2012 respectively, and orange noting years between 2000 and 2012, and yellow 2000:

forest losses 2013

At times, such as in Indonesia and Malaysia, the effects can be particularly dramatic, if not traumatic:

loss of forest over time

teee loss legend

The maps suggest the very limited weight carried by notions of forest growth conservation worldwide.

To examine the loss of forested land alone, highlighted below by a bright magenta, the drastic diminution of forested lands lost, alone, in North America that occurred was concentrated predominantly in Canada and Alaska, including the Boreal Forest, as well as an unprecedented destruction of forested lands in much of the American South, suggests a huge shift in the human relation to the environment, and was matched with a vigorous and systematic degradation of forested lands in Russia and Scandinavia, to suggest an almost obliviousness to the losses incurred in forested lands and their habitats, as what seems a truly free market eats, rather like mildew, into the forested regions of what have been aptly called the planet’s lungs.  The rather unprecedented decade-plus long expansion into forested areas is not only a displacement of natural habitats, but a severe compromising of tree cover in our lived environment, that undoubtedly contributes to the increase of global temperatures.

Forest losss-forests lost

And to model the impact of tree losses, noted above in magenta, against the layers that mark regions of sanctioned lumber (tan) and forests that are intact (kelly green)–and even introduce layers of areas that are designated focusses of conservation.  The impact of the deep incursions in Alaska’s forests is as striking as the expansion of lumbering in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan of formerly intact forests.

Canada forests lumber

The isolation of forest loss alone suggests a broadly shifting Eurasian landscape, with the deepest incursions on outlying areas of Scandinavia (Sweden and Finland, to be precise) as well as the expansive forest cover across the far eastern lands of the Russian Federation–regions with forests denser and holding far greater amounts of carbon that other national forests.

Eurasia Forests LostGlobal Forest Watch, 2001-13

MODIS information might be placed against intact forests mapped in Russia:

intact russian forests diaspora

And identify its relative density and biomass:

biomass forests Russian Fed

within a record of those dispersed protected areas in Russian parks:

Forested Russian Parks

The modeling of satellite data amassed at the the University of Maryland‘s Department of Geographical Sciences, with a Google Earth Engine, has led to a far more detailed interactive map to be published by the newly founded Global Forest Watch to document that shrinking lungs of the planet, when one balances the imbalances between contrasting tree cover gain (blue) and loss (pink) from 2001 to 2013 offers a way to register interaction with our environment in stunning local detail, that reveals the extent of the aggressively pockmarked surface of forests in much of northern Canada, in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, inland of Hudson Bay.  Despite a degree of forest gain, the deep incursions of tree cover loss create a grim picture of the future landscape of the continent, and suggest the benefits of layering levels of growth v. loss of forests, and revealing the clear imbalances between the two.  If sustainability is about maintaining a level of balance–and of ecological equilibria–the virtual assault on the forest, that last refuge from urbanized space, increasingly seen as an obstacle to growth, reveals both an abdication of responsibility for environmental impact, and a broad scattering of the extraction of forest growth from the globe:  the scattering of forest loss in remote areas, perhaps subject to less rigorous oversight, makes such a mapping of the global impact of deforestation over time particularly pertinent.

loss:gain Nafta areasGlobal Forest Watch 

For the impact of deforestation, if we might begin from North America, is truly globalized.

The concentration of tree loss in the US South is not only pronouncedly accentuated, but seems to have occurred without restraint as “wooden pellets” were gathered, often for exportation across existing wooded areas, removed as a layer of in the first map, but shown in light green below.

Tree Loss in US South

widespread forest losses in South East

The northern regions reveal an even more pronounced targeting of forested areas in northern provinces jut below the Northern Territories.

Despite dedicated spots for foresting in Ontario, there seems to have been a much greater expansion of regions of something approaching clear-cutting to the farther north, that tell a story of large-scale licit forest degradation in the particularly pock-marked lands of northern Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, stained with blotches of magenta that record the intensity of forest depletion and sites of local degradation:

Canada clearcutting

The same region where matches the areas of tree cover across North America.

tree cover belt in canada below NT

Layering of areas of conservation reveals how several protected regions closely intersect–and indeed overlap–with the extent of forest loss, in ways that could provide a prompt for investigative journalism, as well–potentially–an illegal wood trade that is quite difficult to control:

protected canada

The local degradation of forests to the north can be placed in the context of both tan regions denoting zones that are dedicated to lumbering and the kelly green regions of intact forests, often bordering on ocean waters–

intact forest Canada:logging:tree losss

or, thanks again to Global Forest Watch, balanced against the degree of degradation of forests and range of intact forests in the data bank over an eleven year period from 2000:

2000 forest levels

The strikingly similar selective inroads into forested areas are evident across Russia–where severe inroads in pockets of the deep forest lands north of Mongolia–seem to suggest the global character of an almost systematic program of deforestation, far exceeding the intense lost of forests in other areas of the country.

Russian incursions

Above Kazakstan and Mongolia

If one is to map the same region against protected forests, the composite revealed of protected areas that are often violated by loss of forests and odd balance between scattered regions of protectionism and deep inroads of forest loss are difficult to reconcile.

protected areas?

Or map the widespread absence of tree cover in relation to the shrinking intact forests of the region:

Russian forests

Or the limited growth of new forests, shown in periwinkle blue, against the lost tree cover and intact forests:

Russian forest cover, blue cover gain

Is the concentrated incursion into forest lands–and resulting loss of forest–a shared condition condition, a result of laissez faire economics, apparent deregulation or lack of coordinated protection of forests, that is a consequence of globalism?  For if globalism entails, as Giddens has it, not only ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’ but a shift in the understanding of place and localisms with distinct bearing on geographic understanding, the depletion of forest cover in concentrated but widely dispersed regions suggest a new understanding of forest loss.  The years from 1990 has seen a dramatically unprecedented expansion of CO2 emissions, especially in developing nations, that may be closely tied to the depletion of tree-cover worldwide.

7.  The loss of tree-cover quite constructively is mapped against the gain in forests, contrasting losses in bright pink/magenta against blue growth, as a means to track local variations in a spreading environmental catastrophe that suggests a colonization of former forested lands, not only due to deforestation but to the disregard for arboreal habitats, with deep losses in the boreal forest and pacific northwest that will haunt the continent to come–despite some repeatings, leading areas to be colored purple, the acute absences of forests has progressed over the interval of twelve years tracked by the LandSat images to an extent that the local environments may never recover. It may be the case, sad as it seems, that we are actually increasingly tied together and to one another in an age of globalized economies by the disappearance of forests at multiple spots across the globe:  if there is a clear consequence of the 1992 trade agreement that lifted all tariffs between the US, Canada and Mexico known as NAFTA, for example, it is evident in the dispersal of trade in wood pellets and chips–at times a notorious means of smuggling–as previous duties on wood products from Canada of up to 16% on softwood and lumber were eliminated, expanding the amount of hardwood lumber imports to the US, US imports of wood more broadly, and trade of US wood to Canada (including hardwood lumber, veneer, plywood) as their prices lowered or decreased.  The large amounts of oak and hardwood from Mexico to the US in pre-NAFTA days would definitely increase.

While the government has encouraged such trade as an economic benefit, the expansion of forest degradation that results–and which the below map tracks–they mask the considerable global problem of greenhouse gas emissions that are due to forestry and land-use change, and the troubling finality of a change in greenhouse gas emissions hat the degradation of forests–and especially old growth or boreal forest–creates.  (Clearing and burning forests creates a fifth of such emissions worldwide; the loss of trees constitutes a deeper damage on the global environment.)

n + c americasGlobal Forest Watch

And purely by mapping loss, and noting the pocking of the northern forests due to inroads of depleted tree cover:

los n and   ameicaGlobal Forest Watch

The relation of the degradation of forests to globalization is perhaps most sharply revealed when moving to the Central America, and the regions of Guatemala and Belize mined for forest wood:

targeting central america over 11 years

The widespread compromising of local environments can be read through the foregrounding of layers that creates quite compelling narratives about forest-cover even for those who had limited sustained interest in the economics of wood:  despite some densely intact forest landscapes inland in Malaysia, for example, and regions in Indonesia and Thailand, the tree cover loss from 2000-2013 suggests narrative of expanded logging for lumber, oil palm, and wood fibre, indicated by tan, ochre, and brown, in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore and a picture of economic squandering of resources:

despite dense with logging

The degree of loss by forest fire might be isolated, moreover, to determine which sort of loss of regional carbon is described in Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines:

fires vietnam malaysia singapore

Deforestation in central Africa seems more due to a combination of mining and logging, and seems to have grown up surrounding the remaining intact forest landscapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and conceals multiple narratives of commercial sacrifice of landscapes to an international demand for wood, as well as for the monies of other countries, the forests of Western Africa long depleted:

deforestation in Central Africa

The areas of Brazil and South America that constitute the Amazon suggest a growth of compromised forests on the edges of intact forest in 2013, concealing the far greater expanse of tree cover just thirteen years earlier:

intact tree cover amazonia

Intact forests in 2000, noting also tree cover expanse in lighter green:

2000 forest cover  brazil amazonia

Tree cover in 2000:

2000 forest cover  brazil amazonia

One is, in the end, overwhelmed by the range of maps and layovers, in ways that are almost as difficult to process as the data on which they are based.  How to hold onto it, or ascertain the economical exchanges that are, so to speak, lying under these maps?

8.  There has clearly been a pronounced warping since 1990 of local attitudes toward wood and forestry, and a rising appetites for wood:  and despite the value of the time-lapse visualizations of forest growth or loss in a truly world-wide picture, the maps provide a point from which to raise questions about how global markets for wood are hastening the degradation of the untouched forest lands of specific environments, they also remove that data from a larger picture of economic exchange.  A counerpart is offered in how the Worldmapper tool and website valuably reveals regional imabalances and discrepancies through its warped cartograms, highlighting, based on FAO statistics, the disproportional nature of the appetite for wood, and the increased reliance on international markets that concentrate the decimation of existing forests in an ever more disparate trade of woods from China, Indonesia, Scandinavia and Brazil–as well as Canada, Malaysia, and the United States.  (Indeed, the specific imbalances of areas like China, which is known to buy up wood from neighboring regions and then resell wood products to the United States and Japan, offers evidence of the degree to which economies of wood are removed from woodcover questions, although wood purchases often originate form nearby areas Malaysia or, in the case of the United States, Honduras, Canada, or Belize.)

The compromising of local forests is not only due to professional farming of wood or “forestry” production of “farmed” wood, which has been nicely plotted for the year 2011 by Worldmapper in the form of a cartogram which reveals a large and flourishing industry of forest growing, using data from the FAO, in a warping of nations’ relative sizes that reflects the large-scale outsized business in forestry in China, Japan, and Indonesia, where wood seems plentiful, and across much of Scandinavia and the United States.

who produces forests?Worldmapper

If the process of globalization has been pegged as convincingly as elsewhere to the consciousness of climate change around the summer of 1988–and the first collective calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions–the process of deforestation is a nice cast of the the impact of what Anthony Giddens aptly and succinctly described characterized as ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa.’  It reveals distinct change in how we experience localness and place, and indeed a distinct change in the absence of attention to the devastating local effects of the consumption of wood–and entitlement to continued access to a perpetual availability of wood products–.  And although the Worldmapper maps have the unfortunate effect of warping countries to erase place, the maps that were designed to show global imbalances in forest production, consumption, and growth provide a regional context in which to understand the losses of trees in many regions of the world, and the deforestation of particular places.  Whereas the statistics don’t include the considerable illegal wood trade, the limited nature of forest growth worldwide–nil in Canada or Russia, slim in Central America or Brazil, and significant only in some regions like the US or Vietnam where wood is an important cash crop.

The production of forests in different lands seems proportionally concentrated in China, doubtless to meet local markets for wood, and is reflected in the mapping of forest growth from 1990-2005–a time over which the range of forests in much of Brazil and Mexico was rarely augmented to great extent, despite the heavy loss of forests in those regions, and a pronounced lack of the sustainability of forests in Indonesia:


The scale of planting forests surely respond to deep differences in the consumption of forests, outsized in industrialized nations, no doubt for tastes in consumption, and particularly bloated in Japan, Germany, England and the United States as well as Brazil, each of which–particularly England, Japan, and the US–seems to outstrip its production considerably; Canada clearly destines most of its produced wood for export, but China was using an outsized share of wood worldwide –given the near absence of extensive forests in its territory, after the destruction of much of the forests in the South:

Forest Consumption--2005

The consequent degradation of existing forests worldwide might be nicely visualized, in a map generated also by the University of Maryland, this time with Greenpeace, by situating the areas of marked degradation against forests lands as of 2013, against the spectre of those forests that are now no longer intact–against which we can orient ourselves and imagine the scope and scale of the loss of woods–and no doubt the economy and ways of live that the woods provide, as much as their role as lungs of the planet that allow for its very habitation.


The issue of wood exports is clearly an issue of sensitive proportions for the hypertrophied regions of Southeast Asia, as well as North America, and one that suggests particularly pronounced effects of globalization on the wood market in both Sweden, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Korea, which suggests the distorted nature of the market of legal trade in wood that motivates the degradation of the forests in those countries–and to some extent in Brazil:


The effects of the loss of forest-cover seems among the most prominent–if rarely discussed–aspects of the arrival of the anthropocene, in which the subtraction of forested lands has explicitly altered the nature of the environment.  Hennig was quick enough–as well as ever-industrious–to create a range of a stunning cartogram warped by the relative depletion of forests  of the loss of forested environments between 1990 and 2005, which was not offset by the growth of forests in the same years.  The cartogram is particularly stunning for how it depicts the disproportionate nature of the depletion of forest lands across the southern hemisphere, especially in Southeast Asia, Mexico and Brazil as well as central America and Central Africa, whose disproportional distribution amounted to a loss of 7.3 million hectares over those fifteen years alone.

forest lossesAmount of Forested Land Lost in Each Country of the World, 1990-2005

At the same time, few forests grew in the southern hemisphere in that same period of fifteen years:


But the most convincing map of the global disparities that arose in the last twenty-five years is what is evident in the most distorted of cartograms showing the relative depletion of the resource of forested lands, based on the irresponsible felling of trees without provision for future growth:  for the world doesn’t exactly fold in half, in this map, but the pronounced lack of responsibly sustainable growth in Guatemala and parts of Central America and much of Malaysia, India, Pakistan, and Central Africa and Ethiopia, reveals a world where poorer countries seem the largest losers, less habituated to practices of sustainability as they are, and more driven by market forces against their own interests–or at least against the interest that the cameralist Hans Carl von Carlowitz would be able to recognize.

Hennig maps forest depletionWorldmapper/Benjamin Hennig

A compelling Worldmapper cartogram maps tree cover against local population is particularly powerful in the suggestion of how disproportionately the survival of forests is endangered by high areas of population–the very areas with an elevated populations, if not necessarily “global footprint,” are among the least forested areas of the world.  And the spread of globalization often threatens precisely those increasingly isolated areas of intact forest marked in light green, revealing the relative lack of forested regions in the most popular areas–and the low concentration of intact forests in the Amazon, Central Africa, and parts of Russia.


To be sure, the scale of the radical reduction of global tree cover in a similar transformation are far withdrawn from centers of economic growth, but the remove of forests at an even greater degree from the equator constitutes a dilemma of global consequence.

treecover population hennig

It is striking, after a somewhat exhausting world tour of the disproportionately skewed nature of forest loss and arboreal compromise, to return to the United States, that remaining densely forested areas in the continent mirrored the striking distribution of the recent map modeling the spread of highly audible levels of anthropogenic sounds across the country, based on data released by the National Park Service, and offer a telling sign of how we inhabit the land in which we live.

green areas on map

USA sound map in decibels

The relative rarity of areas of dense tree cover that remain today in the United States–together with the significant loss of wooded areas in just the past decade, and the marked degradation of forest–suggest a clear record of environmental compromise, if not an evacuation of what might be called the nation’s living landscape–even if the map indicating tree cover noted below it suggests a further diffusion of greenspace in the lower forty-eight:

intact tree cover US

tree cover US

The loss of tree cover in a sense stands out most prominently in the context of what degree of tree cover exists–for the spread of a loss of trees across the deep south, especially notable on the eastern seaboard and in much of Louisiana, as well as outside Denver, in Idaho, and parts of California and Oregon–suggests a loss of the local landscape that may well come back to haunt us.  The spread of forest degradation is not so visibly pronounced in the US, but the extent to which the region is haunted by the specter of long-lost healthy forests or “non-intact” forests surely is–the modeling of our current forest cover is being eroded less by a rapacious economy for wood products than it is concentrated in fairly specific sites of large-scale clearing.  But non-intact forests seem in clear danger of greater compromise.


9.  It is striking that although the origins of the word “sustainability”–Nachhaltigkeit–and the concept of sustainability have often been traced only to recent years, expressing ideas linked to the 1969 US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and for some was first coined in 1972 in Blueprint for Survival as a concept that related to man’s future.

But when it was introduced in the Enlightenment, the Saxon nobleman Hans Carl von Carlowitz employed Nahhatligkeit in an illustration of his cameralist thought as a matter of good sense back in 1713.  Von Carlowitz apparently coined the ethical charge of sustainability in the context of sustained-yield forestry, Sylvicultura Oeconomica, a monument cameralist thought in forestry affirming responsible stewardship of forests.  If responded to deep fears on the continuing ability to derive a sustainable economic value unless one refrained from over-forestation and depletion of lumber stocks.  If written out of deep concern as a civil servant and mining inspector who sought forest ordinances in the Electoral Saxony to conserve resources for the common good, von Carlowitz deliberated the forest ordinances in theElectorate of Saxony where he served as Chief Inspector of Mining, introducing an ethics of economic conservation of nature that preceded the Tharandt Forest Academy in 1811; in calling for conservation of forests for lieben Posterität, he communicated a powerful notion of bequeathing a world undisturbed by unwisely aggressive or opportunistic interventions.

Von Carlowitz’s message framed the concept of mitigating human intrusiveness on the landscape as a “sustained forest yield” around his native Saxon lands, Ulrich Grober has observed, with an intentional of the present’s responsibility to future generations, and as a reasoned reaction to the shock created by wood shortages after the Thirty Years’ War.  The war created a contempoorary crisis in the availability of wood prompted assuaging of fears to ensure that the “great wood shortage . . . be pre-empted,” and awareness that “more wood was felled than grew over many ages” that were more reasoned than the deep-seated apocalyptic fears of the humanist Melanchthon’s prediction that in  “the end of time, man will suffer great need for wood [am Ende der Welt man an Holtz grosse Noth leiden werde].”  It is likely, Grober suggested, that von Carlowitz wrote with knowledge of John Evelyn’s hope to manage England’s forests in Sylva or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber, where he advocating the need to coordinate replanting forests to secure future ships for the navy, the “wooden bulwarks of the kingdom.”  Evelyn cautioned that”Men should be perpetually planting, that so Posterity might have Trees fit for their service,” but did not do a map to chart the losses of trees that had occurred; Evelyn however articulately feared lest “we thus continue to destroy our Woods, without this providential planting in their stead, . . . felling what we do cut down with great indiscretion, and regard to the future.”  These dire warnings shortly preceded how Colbert initiated a similar program for protecting forests for shipbuilding in France to calm fears about wood shortages, leading him to be cited by von Carlowitz as a model for responsible conservation.  But von Carlowitz’s cameralism went farther in calling wood “essential for the conservation of mankind [daß das Holtz zur conservation des Menschen unentbehrlich sey, (p. 372)],” and constraining consumption in relation to the resources forests could support, and intentionally managing a forest’s limited resources as an incumbent responsibility and an ethics of good stewardship.


US Forest Service

The importance of continued responsible stewardship is no longer only based on academic expertise for the common economic benefit, and transcends the concerns or training in administrative expertise.  Indeed, the maps of global losses in biomass are both more shocking than the fears of an impending lack of supply for wood markets, since they reveal the steep consequences of the disappearance of tropical rainforests and subtropical biomes to meet the needs of a growing global population–both by wood extraction and the conversion of forested land to pasture.  But they provide an effective embodiment of the ongoing loss of forests that go far beyond the needs of an individual state.  Even though the United Nations only used the world in a document in 1978, according to Charles Kidd, and “ecological footprint” entered public policy papers as a sort of benchmark and measurement in later years and perhaps widespread usage only after 1987 in the UN World Commission on Economic Development, the lack of a common metric of sustainability no doubt led William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel to advocate the importance of an “ecological footprint” as an ethical imperative, and its adoption as a criteria for the responsible harvesting and planting of trees (as well as, of course, in the economics of forestry).  

If we have been increasingly blinded to the sense of such a footprint–even despite the continued ability to map its occurrence for decades–the rise of disproportionate deforestation of the subtropical biomes in the globalized economy finds a counterpart in the measurements of a MODIS satellite–an instrument more widely associated with surveillance and spying, to be sure–to preserve an eerily unimpeachable public record of environmental loss.  Although the loss of wood is not effectively embodied in the above maps, the concept of sustainability and sustainable practices demands comparable efforts of mapping, as is partially suggested by the degree to which we risk warping the use of our resources, lacking much sense of the language of sustainability or biocapacities, absent a clear visualization of the extent of forest degradation worldwide–and an awareness of the intense over-foresting of areas of critical habitat, as well as of forests critical in their storage of carbon.  Those remaining areas of intact forest landscapes has receded outside many of the areas of the habited world, as the cartograms designed by the Sheffield group and Worldmapper that map forest growth against population on an equal projection reveal, suggesting how astronomical levels of population growth occur at considerable remove from forested lands in much of the world–in ways that have large consequences for the lived environments transmitted to future generations extremely significant in the maps of the future we might imagine.   (It is far more difficult to visualize or imagine the loss of forests on a local level, so tremendous are they in scope.  One must consider, however, the loss of forest around the areas so severely afflicted by the recent outbreak of Ebola virus, however, to start to do so.)

The naming of 2013 as the Year of Intact Forest Landscapes sought to direct important attention not to the conservation of forests, but the need for the protection of the increasingly isolated islands of intact forests across the world–an image that becomes especially scary if one thinks of forests as the world’s lungs.


It is particularly worthy and jarring to remember the relatively recent date of many losses of formerly intact forest, as we consider how to use maps to start to think–or to try to start to learn how to think about–as well refamilairize ourselves with and recognize where the greatest continuous areas of tree cover in the world are located–both in the band of tropical forests along the equatorial regions of Brazil, Central Africa, and Indonesia, as well as the Russian plains and large stretches Canada above the central wheat fields and south of the Northwest Territories.  These tend to be the same areas where an uneasy balance is occurring between loss and gain of forests, and the losses of of specific regions have been strikingly surpassing gains since 2000.

forest loss since 2000

Leave a comment

Filed under forest degradation

Fit to Print?

The making of maps might be interestingly situated within historically situated economies of visual attention.  From their insertion at conspicuous places within some of the earliest printed world histories, maps courted the attention of readers by promising the satisfying harmony of a comprehensive global perspective that existed in uneasy balance with their often providential narratives.

The woodcut of a world map below, designed circa 1490, defined a global purview for readers in ways intended to be cognitively satisfying, promising to orient them to unseen regions by scattered rivers and landmarks, even if they did so by using means that seem antiquated, being both of restricted scope and mediated by inherited ideologies of empire, Christocentric beliefs, and specifically Eurocentric models.  But the promise of expanding horizons led this bold two-page map to be prominently placed in a universal history to mark the recession of waters in a post-diluvian world, suspended in the hands of Noah’s three sons–Shem, Japheth, and Ham–serves as a blank slate to inscribe a global history that proceeds to span across generations to the Resurrection of Christ.


world chronNuremberg Chronicle (1491); fol. 13 (Anton Koberger, Nuremberg)


If maps no longer convey such a stable sense of narrative progress, and such an engraving would no longer seem a marvel, most maps do considerable work in engaging an economy of visual attention.  The world is with fewer open spaces than it was for Noah’s three sons, and global history resists linear narratives, despite the resilience of similarly terrifying apocalyptic notes, at times fed by a rage for biblical prophecy that generated sufficient demand for tracking daily fluctuations of a Rapture Index available for online consultation.

Globalization demands adequate expression by a visual image that can engage its viewers, hopefully by more than the material underside of the interlinked–perhaps a map more fully revealing of the shifting nature of individuals’ relation to the inhabited world.  At a time when the earth is crisscrossed with media systems whose signals are relayed along 6,300 tonnes of satellites–and over 8,000 physical objects that orbit its surface and will outlast its inhabitants as a necklace of debris–we lack maps of how we inhabit the world or have remade our relation to it.


satelites-espacio-google world view



Such computer-generated visualizations offer the chance to visualize the satellites that track our changing global positions and information flows, relaying media world-wide over a multiplicity of interconnections:  the image reveals what lies outside our visual abilities or comprehension–and which we would be otherwise all too apt to forget otherwise– by using government data to allow us to visualize the multiple layers at which satellites orbit our planet, even if they make it hard to track the wide array of signals that they transmit, intercept or surveil.  But they were absent from the multiple covers that served to catch readers’ attention in the global-themed relaunch issue of the New York Times Magazine, a striking photograph of a suspended glowing globe, shot in a studio setting with an exposure that disorientingly overlaps the toponyms of Africa and South America, whose equatorial line seems to cut the globe in an unfamiliar place.

The maps offer an angle to contemplate the stunning long-exposure image of a rotating globe editors of the Magazine recently commissioned from photographer Matthew Pillsbury as a cover illustrating the rapidly changing world for a relaunch issue.  The lit globe seeks to communicate both “the idea of chaos in the world, and how this is something we have all learned to deal with,” the design director observed.  But the cover of the Magazine demands attention both for how it holds the viewer’s interest and renders the globe as its ostensible subject.  The photograph is an artistic interpretation, and compelling illustration that reveals multiple relations between art and cartography, as much as it describes the relations between nature and culture or between news media and globalization.  But if the image was intended to convey the “speed at which our world is changing” to readers, and presumably represent the news covered in its pages, it gives pause–even as an image that reflects on current quandaries of abilities to sustain the successful illusion of a promise of comprehensive news coverage in an ever-changing world.  The almost transient shadow toponymy in the globe as Pillsbury managed to photograph so that the names of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Brazil congregate in a ghostly region off the shore of Africa, and Europe is suitably displaced to its upper regions, suggests the shifting focus of the news, and even questions the familiarity of reading the globe though that most conventional didactic of mapping forms, a globe of the sort one might have encountered in a schoolroom when learning about world geography for the first time:  the apparent overlapping of continents and blurring of the northern hemisphere destabilize our surety of global geography in an intriguing way, set, disembodied, above the words “HELLO, WORLD,” ask we re-examine the map we thought we knew.

The five-color globe that appears in the header to this post is, in fact, while a welcome departure from the templates of Google Maps, similarly opaque in the very inscrutability of the very glittering image of earlier attempts to map the earth that it offers.  Pillsbury’s long-exposure photograph of a spinning lit globe deserves interest as an advertisement of how the newspaper of record mediates news from a perspective that narrates a version of world news increasingly interlinked and less stable through a strikingly retro medium of mapping as a glowing globe.  The photograph addresses how the shifting of what once seemed immovable territorial boundaries circa 1989 have not only been redrawn but shift with an unforeseen fluidity challenging to comprehend.  Yet more than inviting us to interrogate relations, or the mobility of global populations and goods, the image almost aesthetically distances the spinning globe from viewer as much as it reveals levels of entanglement of places to one another and intensified contesting of sovereignty.  The blurred five-color surface of the spinning globe seems to abstract mapping from human geography.  It not only suggests the opacity of its ostensible subject; indeed, it almost asks the observer to throw up their hands in something passing for marvel at the illegibility of a large area of familiar regions, and at the increasing entanglement of current events.  It almost revels in being intentionally opaque, however, as if to say that the old indices of orientation just won’t work or clearly be commensurate to the take on current events that it will describe.

To be sure, in an age of the proliferation of maps on multiple platforms and hand-held devices, it’s refreshing to rehabilitate the schoolroom globe, and almost ask us about our current world’s distance from it.  Oddly, however, Pillsbury’s cover employs an almost antiquated didactic object, a school map, relinquishing interactive mapping tools, to suggest the quick-changing world.  By spinning a schoolroom globe at high velocity to craft a visual pun to illustrate global change, the cover raises as many questions as it answers.  What seems an conservative cartographical format-if here used somewhat tongue in cheek–as an icon of cartographical authority is almost prosaic.  The sheen of the surface takes advantage of the conventional five-color globe of the world to seem to suggest a surface whose very colors and hues are so blurred to render them and all surface toponymy illegible, as much as an image of totality of global relations.  As may befit the newspaper of record, the globe is steadfastly traditional in its familiar five-color design:  it suggests a space by no means fixed, where boundaries around countries are redrawn and surfaces blurred for all practical purposes, but only tweaks the most standard image of the global coverage to suggest a disorienting sense in which we might lose familiarity in its geographical contours, rather than promise truly comprehensive coverage.  It almost erases the considerable varieties of mapping by which we’ve come increasingly to understand and orient ourselves to the world, and almost relinquishes hopes for a new ethics of a world view, but just suggest the inadequacy of imagining the ideas of terrestrial location, proximity and geopolitics as received from earlier school globes.




Is it that the idea of boundaries of knowledge are just not so clearly fixed after all, or that the problem of providing a single authoritative viewpoint is being explicitly acknowledged?  What does it seek to illuminate?




More troubling, Pillsbury’s photograph of a glowing globe offers us no place to decipher almost a single word:  the effect is almost to see words swimming across its ghostly surface, unlike the transient figures that inhabit urban spaces in his stunning body of photographs of urban spaces.  The notion of a commission from the photographer to create an image of global coverage might be misplaced.  For Pillsbury has worked primarily in cities like New York, Paris, Venice, or London, using his knowledge of the local to much advantage, as well as Japan, more recently, where he’s taken advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship to  turn his lens toward explorations of Tokyo’s public spaces.  His subjects have been less global than relentlessly cosmopolitan in scope.  Pillsbury’s recognizable style is more than a sign that the Times seeks to cultivate readers as the hip newspaper of record by the image in this post’s header, as much as suggest an actual global purview of different spaces.  The picture is almost a way of conveying just how difficult the job of the news is to convey all that’s fit to print, in a time when the world seems spinning faster than ever before.

As an artist who has investigated the relations of crowds to urban space the spaces in New York that he knows well, often working to illuminate the “performance” of identity in interior or cavernous public spaces where individuals and crowds congregate, Pillsbury has cleverly employed extended exposure to blur the boundaries among individuals  in urban space and place.  The result is to question the relation of the individual to settings that might be otherwise familiar.  The extended exposure of the globe is less of a site for staging events or a setting, than a surface just out of contact with the viewer’s eye.  Despite the suitability of Pillsbury’s medium to observations of the interaction between individuals and images, or crowds visiting museums, such images are effective as encouraging ongoing visual investigations by expanding time in exposures from a few minutes to an hour that is collapsed into a single image.  They indicate the changing “geographic imagination” by which we all inhabit different spaces.  The spinning globe is photographed less to offer a record of lived space than an almost fetishized surface as an object, more than inviting viewers to consider the spaces that they inhabit; if the urban spaces can never be stopped or reduced to a purely static form, the globe is always in motion and hard to perceive save by the brightly lit sheen it presents.  It recalls a past legibility of space, rather than propose a prospect of continued legibility.

The photograph on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, despite its candy colors, contains a clear note of melancholy of the absence of hopes for adopting a clear relation to space, even as it radiates contentedness in that realization.  The photograph is perhaps best taken as a meta-observation on the success with which maps can continue to command interest in a changing world.  The candy-colored globe is an icon of cosmopolitanism, not primarily oriented toward coverage, blurring the notion of one-to-one signification, and almost attesting to its own inadequacy.  That is not, however, the most confident self-image for journalism to project.  And it hardly helps that we have to wade through about fifty pages of full-color advertisements for high-level commodities and financial services, speckled with small articles, until we find articles about the world in the Times‘ recent “Global Issue” that meet the promise its title posed, but raise some of the issues about which we might want to learn if we could better distinguish its spinning surface after all.


Spinning a Globe to show speedNew York Times Magazine


It contrasts to how Pillsbury regularly runs long exposures to pose topics of visual interest that invite us to look at how spaces are inhabited in new ways, raising compelling questions about the construction of space and how we live in it, the globe’s familiar surface offers more of an elusive object of desire and a commodity–and not provide a space that invites us into it, and whose business invites us to sort outs its contradictions.  For if the issue doesn’t really invite us to look at the world, so much as the advertisements suggest the globalized economy it serves, the sort of select writing that we have to wade through glossy ads to find is a deserved reward, but hardly a point of entrance.  Another of Pillsbury’s images of a strikingly similar color palette suggests the pronounced permeability of place to humans, and explores a living geography defined by human interaction in ways static maps can rarely either work to successfully register.


Pillsbury_Matthew_RobotRestaurantTokyoTV14628_2014_0© Matthew Pillsbury / Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC


But the ghostliness of the globe almost suggests a world that can’t be grasped, about which we are as mesmerized as challenged to process information.  Rather than invite the reader to interpret global space, the image seems a farewell to geography as a matrix of information, rather than the promise of global coverage made by most earlier symbolic maps in newspaper mastheads or backdrops of nightly news television shows.


globe by paraidesNew York Times


One senses that there is less interest in the history of an icon of spatial inter-relations, and networks of relationships, than an insider knowledge of how far we have come from the sorts of globes we used to use in school.  The photograph seems to gesture, however, to a long history in the twentieth century that takes the globe as a promise of the coverage that the news–or a news channel–could offer, if its iconic role seems to have considerably atrophied as it grew increasingly antiquated in current news graphics, which cultivate far more dynamic modes of visual engagement.

The iconic marquis of De Lauer’s News Stand in Oakland, CA, whose range of international papers made it a mecca of the hard-to-find–and which remains a survivor of the on-line–dates from the Cuban Missile Crisis, as might be evident in its charmingly corny magnification of the United States in a global map.  The globe so prominent behind the name “De Lauer’s” in the marquis provides a notable predecessor of the symbolic promise of mediating global information, and the purchase of the authority of the globe as a promise of the delivery of objective information to a shifting readership of news; even if the prominence of the United States on the map belies the fact of the range of international news it continues to sell, the marquis illustrated the inter-connected nature of the world delivered in print daily to the door of an Oakland news stand.


DeLauer's StorefrontOakland, CA


The image of the newscaster reading the globe was easily transposed to early television news for some years as an authoritative setting of addressing a public audience of viewers, back when news was of a considerably more univocal enterprise.  What now seems too a tired template for breaking news has retreated to a background of increasingly schematic form, no longer the authoritative site of enunciation from a position of expertise it was for Walter Cronkite’s newsroom, even as the studio backdrop map was recently reinstated for current newscasts.  The map in front of which Cronkite spoke was something of the objective correlative of  the reliability of the individual newscaster, or a sign promising continued confidence in his pronouncements, and was updated in the famous equal area Goode homolosine projection that was adopted for CBS Evening News.



Cronkite sd


cronkite wall map

 Walter Cronkite (c. 1968)


It’s unclear if this is still the case, even if the network has recently resurrected the same backdrop, it seems to lack comparable authority.




The stability of the globe has atrophied in network news, receding to a backdrop with strikingly less signifying power.  The globe has become a glyph of reduced prominence and authority–not only because of compelling graphics, but as its meaningfulness seems increasingly worn and holds less promise or stages a narrative of global coverage not clearly attached to a somewhat overly tired symbol.  No longer corresponding to the omnipresence of proliferating online maps in our worlds and on our other screens, the world map seems a superadded surplus, almost an older piece of mental furniture pressed into new service.




The world map is often pressed into service as a supporting graphic rather than an authoritative point of reference:


world news.










It’s hard to say how much a static map can pose the pretense of authoritatively describing a terrain that seems so rapidly shifting and whose dynamics of power it could hardly capture.  It is difficult to assert  the globe’s a promise of comprehensive coverage, or successful a medium to hold the viewer’s attention.

To be sure, the continued promise that the globe makes is not truly able to be taken so seriously, as well, given the multiplicity of news sources that we tend to presume, and the difficulty of assuming that one source would credibly count as a fount for universal coverage.  Although global coverage remains an icon of authority, the geographical distribution of news items printed in the Boston Globe, MIT’s Center for Civic Media‘s project “Mapping the Globe” demonstrates, by showing the return on the promise of global purview promised in the newspaper’s masthead against its stories–demonstrating a predictably skewed coverage in 2011-15.  If reflective of recent global “hot-spots” in Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq in that period, the skewed nature of their current coverage directs attention to and mediates a picture of global politics to its readers which one can easily re-imagine as distorting actual its proportions in response to proportions of the paper’s coverage:



boston globe:world


While this partly depends on the paper’s distribution, and putting news on the table that will grab attention–and this interactive map will allow viewers to investigate the map at much further depth, below its surface, by hyperlinks to the exact stories about each region that they can scroll through, as if by a toponymical indexing of the newspaper’s coverage of recent events:


boston globe news


Articles per capita MA


It raises questions of the picture of the world that we see refracted in the news stories that the Globe prints, and what it effectively filters out of the mix to provide its coverage of news.



glboal map



The result, based on a morphing of the world map by data about stories related to countries in the Guardian newspaper, 2010-2012, was remapped accordingly by the energetic and enterprising cartographer Benjamin Hennig, in a cartogram that reveals the distortion of hemispheric privileging of space in the newspaper’s coverage, while maintaining the actual land/water ratio:  the result instructively magnifies the mideast, US, and Europe, echoing of distortions of the Mercator globe, while magnifying the AfPak region and Iraq, much of the Middle East, and both Japan and the Koreas:





Even without actually drawing an proportional cartogram of global areas covered in stories that reach print, such as that created by developers of Worldmapper, from Hennig to Danny Dorling, which rescale the size of nations in proportion to how often it is mentioned in online news items, or to create metrics of places corresponding to the size of articles newspapers devote attention to them–and perhaps have retained active bureaus–newspapers hard-wire our brains to a global map or worldview we all too readily internalize.  The worldview leads us to expect stories from regions of the world, and to suddenly make space for others–Ukraine; Liberia; Nigeria–aware that they may suddenly may disappear.  This might be called the world we bring to the paper, as we first click on its homepage or physically open its pages, as much as the world that the paper covers.  But the blurred world of shifting toponymy that Pillsbury preserves is more often one that lies just out of reach.

In terms of the acknowledgement of the blinders by which the world’s news is actually mediated, it’s nice to close with the combined tension of peace and violence created by the coexistence of obliteration of information and an ideal of harmony refigured by far more ironical image created by Maurizio Cattelan and Pier Paolo Ferrari for the same Magazine.  Cattelan and Ferrari provocatively painted of a repainting of the globe’s surface that both conveys a suggestion of blissed-out harmony of the island of the lower forty-eight states, and a terror of obliterating all existing toponymy save that in the forty-eight states between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, save the partly obscured lettering noting both oceans.  This masking of a map shows an optimistically if terrifyingly blinkered news, a sense that the world is best in our hands when we’ve obliterated most all that is outside our immediate purview, prepared by what seems a man in a dark blue serge suit, who is calmly and decisively moving a brush studiously to conceal most of the surface of the inhabited world with baby blue paint, in a sort of Brave New World image of preparing What We Want To See as much as ‘All the News that’s Fit to Print’–and wonder if its consequences are so pure–and who is the suitably anonymous man in the blue serge suit who is doing the overpainting, anyways.   (It echoes the rendition of a perpetually sunny scenery in Google Maps, though even Google is more forthright in offering geographical coverage.  But it would be hard to offer less than shown below.)



Cattelan DetailCattelan/Ferrari


The multi-media image of a painted-over globe seems to record the censoring of what we need to know, and what is to be seen–and presents us with the manicured image of what we know best if not a view of the world where censorship is the new norm.  In the post-Snowden world, we cannot help but think about NSA’s efforts to infiltrate internet carriers and compromise global telecommunications networks without concern for international law–or treatises with the sovereignty of neighboring countries in the Caribbean:  in this globe there is “an equal measure of terror and peace,” although  the peace lies in obscuring of the world outside of the United States by blanketing the entire world with coats of light turquoise latex paint.



Cattelan's US 48Cattelan/Ferrari (detail)


Both images provoke us to consider the ways that the image provide commentaries on news as a space for learning around the world, or to orient ourselves to the dynamics by which we describe and are invited to investigate the world.

The mediated nature of news is, of course, not so tacitly commented on by the image of the editorial team that assembled the updated Magazine, young folks huddled around a large-screen Apple monitor of pretty similar ethnic identity and economic background, preparing the image of the world that will be soon ready to be consumed.  Has the screen replaced the globe?


22edlet_ss-slide-U7WL-articleLargeNew York Times

Leave a comment

Filed under globalization, news coverage, news graphics

Deep Blue Openings in an Increasingly Sound-Filled World

The detection of sound provides a primary registers by which we are able to judge spatial relations and experience space.  But sensitivity to auditory sensations may be increasingly compromised to orient ourselves across much of the country; recent mapping of increasingly elevated sound-levels across the nation that was created by computer algorithms based on some in a distribution that has rightly commanded increasing attention after tis being released on February 17:  synthesizing about 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring, the portrait of sounds on an average summer day present an image of the extent of places where one can expect to encounter aural intrusions.  The flyover view illustrates shifting decibel levels across the continuous forty-eight states, but most strikingly reveals the rare places marked by an absence of human-made sound.  The infiltration of anthropogenic noises is only poised to grow further in coming years, standing to change our experience of place and how we inhabit the world.

The unprecedented registration of sound-levels mapped across the country and rendered by computer algorithms is a significant achievement, but a benchmark of human geography.  The shifting colors of the registration of sounds at above-average decibel levels reveal a significant diffusion of surprisingly high levels of background sound across the nation and suggests the radical changes our national soundscape has experienced in recent decades, as background noises have become an almost inescapable aspect of daily life.  While registration of auditory differences in ambient sound across space have rarely been able to be charted with such precision, the resulting map shows a national both distinguished by far higher sound-levels than the past, and a diffusion of human-made sounds spreading from megacities to the rural hinterland, leaving diminishing differences between the two:  the near-absence of lands removed from human-made sound across much of the land suggests a radical remaking of our auditory world, as loudness is no longer clearly localized.  Rather than reflecting clear boundaries, the almost inescapable nature of of noise-levels across much of the Eastern seaboard,  midwest, and west coast lights expanses by a dim sulphuric glow, confining “wilderness”–if by that we mean by that a space where we can listen to hawks cry, hear water running in streams, rustling grasses, the conversation of rainwater with leaves, or insects’ buzz–to a small regions of deep blue that roughly match the largest national parks.  Who’s to say that this is not a shift as significant as climate change?

The rising levels of human-generated background noise across the country may constitute a health risk, given established links between sound-levels and blood pressure; the near-ubiquity auditory interference also suggests a significant compromising of our sensitivities to the particularities of place that seems both particularly troubling and of historical note as a change in our lived environment and auditory atmosphere.

USA sound map in decibelsScienceNews

The expansion of anthropogenic noise has profoundly altered the national soundscape, and indeed made the protected aural environments that suggest the limited success of the management of sound a generation after the 1972 Noise Control Act set a standards of local and regional acoustical management.  The acoustic data was processed by computerized algorithms to exclude local street traffic as well as variable air sounds of jets that predicts spatial differentials in the levels of unavoidable local background sound even without such outside intrusions.  Human-made noise has not only outstripped population growth; the growth in rising ambient sounds has surpassed three decibel levels is perceptible in almost two thirds of the protected regions and National Parks–roughly mirroring that region of greater natural sounds, not accounting for sounds likely to be soon unleashed by the expansion of hydraulic fracking, pipeline construction, drones, and the expanding density of air travel.

The portrait of our decreasingly differentiated auditory environments raises the stakes for preserving secluded spaces that will undoubtedly compromise our own future sense of space.  To be sure, the notion of a comprehensive acoustical monitoring of the entire continuous United States is not possible, and would require far more funds than the National Parks Services has at its disposal.  But the picture that emerged of a shrinking space of silence–and a shrinking space of focussing on “natural” ounds, not generated by humans, is striking.  Even as we receive increasing recommendations from ecotherapists urging us to act to remedy widespread affliction by nature deficit disorder by immersing ourselves in greater sensory engagement, and ecopsychologists note the health benefits of hearing leaves rustling or wind through trees, the map paints a picture of a future of radically reduced horizons for auditory engagement with unavoidable nature of anthropogenic noise.  The illumination of up to half of the nation, if not two-thirds of its inhabited areas, by striking bursts of yellow suggest an encroaching inescapability of noise that may compromise our sense of space:   with refuges to experience soundscapes under thirty decibels of loudness increasingly rare, ecotherapists may be conducting some seriously long distance guided trips.  One’s eyes are drawn to those deep blue spaces of repose in select areas of the inner recesses of national parks, but one is simultaneously struck by their distance from the environment where one lives.

The imagined soundscape without the presence of humans–or filtering all anthropogenic sound–would reveal a national soundscape pronouncedly divided into relatively noisier eastern and significantly more silent western halves, reflecting the greater inhabitation of the half of  the country east of the deserts:  this seems almost an auditory Continental Divide.  When Kurt Fristrup and Daniel Mennitt of Colorado State University of Fort Collins sought to map a landscape of differentials in “natural” sound across the country, they used it as a sort of base-map on which future data levels could be read:  indeed, one can distinguish the deep green swirls of sounds of the Mississippi, silences of mountain ranges, and noisy coasts–but an expansive stretches of silence across most of the region west of the Continental Divide.

scivis_graphNational Park Services Natural Sounds and Night Skies

One can usefully compare it to the contacting regions of the forested United States, based on this 2012 remotely sensed map of the woody biomass of the continuous United States, released by NASA’s Earth Observatory and created by computer modeling, that reveals the growing expanse of those regions permeable to extensive infiltration by sound.


Woody Biomass from NASA 1999-2002



One might compare it to horticulturalist and dendrologist C. S. Sargent’s 1884 comprehensive mapping of the density of US Forests, now digitized by David Rumsey, which presented the first detailed survey of the sort, to note the decline in tree-cover across the Great Plains and Mississippi, as well as the Great Lakes:


United States Density of Existing Forests 1884

Wired; from Rumsey Collections


The map of “natural” sounds reveals the levels of under 40 decibels marks a threshold in the intrusion of an array of anthropogenic sounds, one that reflects the changes of how we now inhabit the continent, and how we perceive the inhabitation of space, that might be compared to Global Warming in its cascading effects of how sound spreads across its sonic space.

 And in creating a synthesis of sound-levels across the nation, Frist has not only set something of a high watermark in the sound-drenched nature of our landscape.  The marked change across the national soundscape that Fristrup has helped chart based on 1.5 million hours of acoustical monitoring reveals a shift in hearing that seems on the level of that described by visualizations of the alarming local rises in regional temperatures across the nation, which providing apparent evidence of an inevitable process of global warming:  the maps below seems to suggest similarly ineluctible changes of the anthropocene at the nation’s edges that we have only begun to track, although the causation of such environmental impact to a release of greenhouse gasses is less clearly mapped in terms of causation, and human agency less readily determined than the registration of something that seems like climate change.

RISING TemperaturesNew York Times

Rather than consuming the edges of the country, as the above visualization of rising temperatures across the nation as evidence of impending global warming from the New York Times, noise encroaches on the country from the more populated areas more often located on its coasts and eastern shoreline.  The region providing platforms to the world is not organized as a clear workspace or a set of clear property lines, but as corporate entities and logos, and where the bulk of the wealth produced has proved increasingly elusive for many of its residents.  But the expansion across much of the nation’s soundscape by human generated sounds reveals what an analogous trend of man-driven change, if one that one can map with fine grain, and which impacts our perception of local experience in ways that seem more easy to measure and render at fine grain.

For the compromise of the sonic sensorium across much of the country suggests the degraded sonic environment we are transmitting to future generations.  The map of the auditory landscape across the United States suggests the emergence of sizable and rapidly growing rifts on the amount of audible sound to which we are daily exposed that seem as prominent as a Continental Divide:   radically different soundscapes in different parts of the country suggest a country increasingly plagued by noise–middle America or what was once known as the Midwest is distinguished by almost ubiquitous manmade background noise; intense acoustic shocks are rendered as bright corridors of noise run along Eastern seaboard of notably high loudness; only pockets of western parks, rendered as deep blue expanses in the interior, are distinguished by sound-levels of less than 20 decibels.  The Acoustic Society of America used some 270,000 hours of measurements across 190 sites in the country’s National Parks in the contiguous United States to assess an initial picture of levels of ambient human noise that seem all but inescapable in the U.S.  If the 1972 Noise Control Act was directed to strengthen legal protections against “unwanted or disturbing sound” to regulate noise pollution, sound-levels seem  so widespread across the nation to be hard to distinguish how unwanted sounds adversely affects one’s quality of life as unwanted disturbances.  Yet we now have a mens to visualize the collective rises in ambient sound in ways that are truly as compelling as maps of global warming.

The change in our aural landscapes has gone largely unremarked, in part because the data is less easily available, and visualizations were long less able to be confidently rendered in such clear detail–or the amount of data not able to be clearly synthesized.  Even at first seeing the map of sound levels in the nation released by workers at the National Parks Services in past weeks, it’s hard not to be drawn to these scattered refuges that lurk inside the map, as we shun the bursting supernovas of  aggressively bright yellow whose streaks across the overstimulated sonic landscape where most of us live.  The brightness of areas in which greater levels of sound were sensed seem to push us to the relatively few remaining quiescent places in the continent:  it is not that they remind us of just how fully the sounds of motorized vehicles have come to penetrate most of our auditory worlds most of the time, but that they seem so ever-present and so visually loud, even when the levels of sound seem to fade miasmatically into the midwest, but reflect the growing population centers across the country that undoubtedly generate the greatest noise.  The map creates a compelling picture about how we can interpret the current distribution of populations as filling the nation’s space.

Ex01_Mega-Region-Population_500pxMartin Prosperity

Much of the attention that the map has received respond to just how rarely sound-levels have been so closely integrated–or so clearly shown to overlap–with the mapping of an environmental space, or so compellingly integrated within an understanding of environmental change.

The question of registering an atlas of urban sounds have most often responded to less to subjective or individual perception than public policy issues that surround very specific local levels sonic pollution in urban environments from San Francisco to Oslo, based on visualizing noise levels across urban streets through GIS-based simulations that synthesize variations in decibel levels over time–and reflect a desire to control urban noise that even predate the Industrial Revolution, and which, R. Murray Shafer has found, there is evidence in Bern back in 1628, but which computerized maps provide a basis to visualize the results of such acoustical monitoring today.


San Francisco



Despite such concern for managing urban soundscapes, less attention has focussed on comprehensively mapping endangered sounds–and even less on the endangering of silence, which have not been often imagined as a comprehensible object of concern.  Attempts at mapping local sound-levels for reasons of public health have focussed on a local level to assess problems of noise pollution and to assess aural impositions in urban spaces–and to measure benchmarks of tolerable sound-levels in urban space.  We more often consider noise abatement in relation to crowded restaurants than open spaces or countryside.   The registration of a varying range of decibel levels across the United States created the opportunity to visualize a color-coded record of ambient sound, grouped according to spatially situated environments, applied a broad palette to geographic space based on a much larger dataset, and one that responds less to problems of placing future projects of construction than measuring the increasing ubiquity of sound-levels often linked to urban environments across the country.

The innovation of the NPS sound map of the country’s less inhabited and more densely inhabited regions presents a particularly persuasive picture of the extent of the growing uniform nature of our aural environments.  Based on the 1.5 million hours of motoring across the country to capture  sound levels sensed on an average summer day, researchers with the National Parks Service have collated an impressive acoustic topography of the continental United States in hopes to map average decibel levels across the country, and found few areas of relative quiet.  The result is particularly striking for suggesting deep scars of sound that radiate aglow from urban agglomerations in a heat map of loudness that registers the diffusion of human-made noise levels across the country, and the extent to which much of its illuminated center is flooded with ever-present background sounds–acoustic pools, as it were, of almost 50 dB, or able to drown most natural sounds from animals.  If the sound map created from algorithms suggests just how urbanized we are today, and how far urban noise-levels extend across much of the country, it offers evidence of the auditory effects of anthropocene from which there appears no turning back.


USA sound map in decibels


The picture does not look good for the future of quiet spaces in most of the coterminous United States.  The stars and streaks of aggressively bright sulfuric levels of smoky yellow–indicating concentrations in urban areas of a level of 51 decibels or more–maps clearly onto population concentrations from the shores of Lake Michigan to Dallas, Atlanta or central Florida.  The noise map reveals huge differences in noise tolerance and indeed background noise that most Americans experience as normal, and indeed the auditory expectations most bring to their days, and the relative absence of silence over a large part of the inhabited country that noise has infiltrated, from a light gauze of yellow that surrounds are largest farming industries to the clusters of noise around expansive urban areas.  In those deep blue swirling patches of the interior lie the most silent spots of the country,abysses of quiet which register the lowest absolute levels of sonic interference, far from the pollution of urban noise which seems to spread like age spots across much of the eastern half of the continent.  (The very deepest deep blue regions designate areas of background noise below twenty decibels, the sound of a ticking watch, far below  the  a refrigerator hum, and very far from the ever-present ring of cell phones, piercing blasts of jack hammers or car alarms, freeway rumble or such sudden spikes as sawing concrete that now seem to so often mark the hubbub of urban life that is often difficult to blank out save by white noise machines.)  A considerable share of the population must be quite habituated to an almost constant loudness of almost fifty dB, or about that of constant traffic–and just below that which is claimed to increase high blood pressure, tension, and heart attack risks.

Remapping the limited areas of low-level sounds top stand out more dramatically in black as isolated islands of greatest quiet gives the map an even clearer urgency as a manifesto for the shrinking spaces of silence across the continuous United States:




The map advances a narrative of the shrinking areas of silence in the soundscape of the continental United States that is decidedly not rosy, and in which levels of noise pollution stand to double or indeed triple every twenty years, making this a particularly troubling prospect that challenges the future of silence in America.  Not so surprisingly, it maps well onto a randomized map forecasting air quality across the nation in its contours, although variations in the NPS soundscape in the header to this post reveal more finely grained variations and seems to exploit a broader dataset.


Feb 20 AQI



The deep discrepancies in decibel levels however bears little clear correlation to the current mosaic of political preference across the continuous forty-eight, however Lamarckian one would like to be about the relation between collective preferences and aural environments.  Despite a tendency to link weaker support for Republicans with louder areas of greater ambient noise, the data just doesn’t bear it out in full at all:  some of the reddest areas are those register considerably greater decibel levels.  (Low support for Republicans in Maine contrast with its predominantly low levels of ambient sound; noisy areas of the South are pretty darn red, despite strikingly diverse levels of ambient sound registered in those states; noise-levels in California’s central valley are roughly equal the blueness of its coast.)


Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 9.10.13 PM


The narrative that the soundscape implies is far from rosy, however.  What seems most frightening is the lack of any clear map of the future penetration of high decibel levels across much of middle America.  Along the frontier of the decibel divide, much of the nation’s center appears flooded dark yellow; Denver, St. Lake City, Las Vegas and Boise seem beacons in an expanding aural frontier, burning bright already in Seattle and Olympia.  The registration of these ambient sounds include not only vehicles, but from factories, radios, sirens, televisions, construction sites, trains, or mechanically generated sound of any kind, registering the range of overlapping sounds at any space at any time, in a manner more like Zefrey Throwell’s 1,000-car-horn symphony than the heterogeneous ensemble of percussionists György Ligeti enlisted in his Grand Macabre.

Looking at the nation’s soundscape, it’s hard not to be drawn to the chasms of deep blue where sound levels decrease.  National Parks Services’ researchers took some shots when they compared these areas without background noise to the notion of traveling back in time to the sound-levels before Columban contact–on their apparent ignoring of the dense population of the continent before its “discovery”–one might see it as the sonar landscape Lewis and Clark experienced with the collection of animal trackers and Native Americans which composed the Corps of Discovery,  traveling down the Columbia river or pausing in their portages:  these are the areas distinguished with a sound level of lower than twenty decibels, areas where one can access a pristine auditory experiences characterized by the near-absence of the background noises that we are tempted to screen out of our auditory experiences,–and against which would stand out the perception of local wildlife.

The attractiveness of these seemingly pristine places not only provides a compelling advertisement for visiting national parks during whatever summer vacations one might have, but is a compelling soundscape of a world not likely to return, where decibel levels fall far below the fifty that almost seem low for urban areas, the deep blue recalling something like the cold of oceans’ depths.  Created by the National Parks’ Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, it reflects their mission statement to create an inventory of sound that seeks to preserve “acoustic and night sky environments unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” Fristrup worries, and provides something of a watermark on our aural environments, but it is also intended as a diagnostic tool to measure the degree to which manmade noises affect owls and bats who depend on locating insects to find food–the somewhat synesthetic record renders an acoustic environment married by bright yellow splotches and sulphuric streaks, and ubiquitous noise levels comparable to hearing a washing machine churn from a distance of three feet away.

The ever-present scars of unwanted sound spread aggressively in almost radial fashion from major population centers and seem diffused across many the rural areas of the country.  The maps suggests the auditory compromises created by the road network which generates ever-present background noise across the continent’s more inhabited areas, even if the algorithm used to generate it discounted traffic, with non-human made sounds of wind and water.  Rather than present a watermark of sound levels, the map bodes poorly for the growing levels of volume in years to come.  If much of this noise-generated hearing loss perhaps on account of noise-levels artificially generated in iPods and MP3 players which funnel amplified sound into directly our ears–and which may have helped elevate the number of five million 12-19 year olds who have compromised hearing thresholds, according to Dangerous Decibels–a site which is full of tips on living with hearing loss and the risks of noise-induced hearing loss–the desensitization to environmental sounds that the map charts creates a landscape where even those without Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) have a compromised relation to their environments.

But the map suggests the changing nature of outdoor hearing for most populations, compromised by the rise of background noise, and the deep penetration of what used to be considered urban sounds of mechanized movements across much of the country.

USA sound map in decibels


Reading the stark topography of sound levels across the lower forty-eight, one is indeed almost instinctively tempted to run into its scattered pockets of deepest blues:  these seem the safest areas of respite, as one shrinks from the bright incandescent yellows of even a tolerable amount of ever-present background noise–maybe not to the deserts of southwest Texas, but if not to the national parks bordering California, in the Cascades, the Colorado Plateau, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Dinosaur National Monument between Colorado and Utah, and in the Great Basin.  (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that some of these ecosystems, many home to Native Americans, were to be preserved “from injury or spoliation” by the National Parks, preserved thanks to Carl Shurz, David Brower and Howard Zahniser.  Is the aural intrusion not a deep form of injury?)

One might as well get out a paper map of the greenspace in parks to correlate them with the deep blue lakes of silence .  . .





It is almost difficult to imagine the experience of those deep blue areas of silence today.

The expansive chromolithographies of Thomas Moran depict deeply hidden, inner resources of nature in sites such as the future Yellowstone or Zion Park, preserved from industrializing life of in ways that raised interest in the hidden landscapes of the United States, after he had accompanied Ferdinand V. Hayden on the 1871 Geographic Survey of the Territories, in ways that created one of the first romantic images to produce a popular movement for the protection of a landscape as undisturbed.  One is struck in Moran’s monumental landscapes by how these awesome environments dwarf their  human visitors, arriving in what seem uninhabited lands, far from the noise of railroads or cities in the industrializing United States:



Thomas Moran, “The Valley of the Babbling Waters, Southern Utah” (1873) 18.71.14




Thomas Moran, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1875) 18.71.8



These are the ideals of We now look at the romance of arriving at deep blue spots in the algorithmically generated soundscape, far removed from Moran’s monumental renderings of geographical formations that first communicated a sense of the natural majesty of the western United States to a large audience of viewers that communicated the wonder of a landscape he saw as both untouched and pristine, in contrast to the ever-present ambient noise that seems not only inescapable in remote regions of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park but all but inescapable in much of the U.S.

But the levels of noise pollution that illuminate or almost incandescently light much of the country marks the encroaching of an auditory anthropocene from which there will be no turning back, and which has already altered the landscape as well as soundscape of the country.  The spatial collation of audio registrations finds most people live in environments “where night skies and soundscapes are profoundly degraded, Fristrup notes, describing the extent of both sound and noise “pollution” as almost spanning the continent, where median background noise plagues most, out of a desire to “conserve natural sensory environments for future generations” registers his deep and abiding sense of loss and the inevitability of a landscape of increasing auditory degradation that could bring a generation of “learned deafness” destined to dull one to the very soundscapes National Parks seek to conserve–and the notion of such environmentally provoked desensitization to sound seems backed by the datum that some 10 million people in the United States were judged, in 1999, to have permanent hearing loss from noise or trauma.  Are we becoming increasingly hard of hearing or deaf, or in danger of slowly losing a sense by which humans have long interacted with the world and gave meaning to it?

The argument has had special resonance–no pun intended.  The map that was quickly shared upwards of 10.9 K times record penetration of high decibel levels (above 40) across much of the country’s inhabited land–and the rarity of those deep blue chasms that seem to almost fall through the map.  Although the idea that they record the sound environment of the country before Columbus is doubtful, and not only because of the folly of thinking that it was not inhabited before 1492, the absence of industrial ambient background noise over a level of forty decibels is no doubt a pretty modern creation–though anthropocentric presumptions that the noise be generated by humans, rather than animals–stampedes of buffaloes?–seems more unwarranted.  But the map based on measurements of midsummer decibel levels is a unique map of how we inhabit the land, and a nice record of what we might mean now by the “inhabited world”–or ecumene.  It is a record, perhaps, of how we have chosen to inhabit space, and the ways that we have chosen to inhabit it–the landscape scarred with sound bizarrely analogous to the barren scored and spotted pock-marked lunar landscape, and the connotations of un-inhabitability it inescapably provokes in evoking this surface without life.




The sterile landscape of the moon is an odd choice of comparison.  The worry that we may be facing the rise of a “deaf generation,” unable to hear the world as men and women once perceived natural sounds, due the growing decibel levels of constant noise in larger cities, and not be able to hear or register the natural sounds in cities, and even National Parks, has led Fristrup to worry about the threats and healthiness due to increases in ambient noise and wonder if future generations might not even appreciate the sounds of nature in cities or National Parks.  If such fears seem alarmist, they are reflected in the deep attraction most observers will have to the deep blue identified with tranquility–and with restfulness or even curl health–an association according with the profound healthful benefits of silence.

Fears of a growing disconnect with aural experiences makes the strong similarity between the scoring of the national soundscape and the lunar landscape somehow appropriate.  For the scientific synesthesia that results suggests how we’ve filled the continent with sound, from jack hammers to jet airplanes to trucks to power mowers to daily traffic to sanitation trucks to birdcalls.  The sonic landscape closely corresponds to the expansion of manmade environments across the continent, and ignore the level of noise that was made by earlier inhabitants.  The measurement of strong levels of sound pollution claims to screen out the traffic of nearby automobiles, but is appears to echo the very network pattern of freeways and highways that traverse the country and link cities with one another, and were no doubt privileged sites of measurement; where few or no roads exist, it seems that regions of deep blue must perforce prevail–or at least that the grids provide a basis to generate noise:  grids of streets even appear in the noise map, much as the splotches of bright yellow mark cities and sprawling urban areas that have made silence almost inaccessible for large shares of the nation’s populations without considerable geographic mobility, and moved all landscapes of deep silence far west, removed from traffic’s perpetual hum.





The apparent density of noise may indeed be partly explained by the density of the network of highways that course across the Eastern seaboard and much of the midwest.

What might be called the noisier half of the United States–


Noisier places


is the same region where highways define a distinctly different relation to expanse:

half highways



In other terms, the noise, roads, and urban areas reveals an image of how we inhabit continental expanse.  We might compare the division of the country, grosso modo, to the imbalance in the density with which McDonald’s restaurants are spread across the contiguous United States, shown here by illuminated dots that reveal the proximity of fast food restaurants across the land, sometimes suggesting strikingly similar highway paths, and no doubt mirror population trends, and indeed the density of businesses:



Stephen Von Worley 


Does space tend to collapse in interesting ways once one is less able to sense sounds?  Such levels of noise pollution offer a sonorous residue or acoustic remainder of how we have come to inhabit the world’s environment and to remake it, and register the arrival an auditory anthropocene which earlier maps have often been hard-pressed to detect.

As much as being confined to the United States, the prospect of such elevated decibel levels in areas of dense population and the modern humming of transportation networks across the country find a parallel in the noises of the global traffic networks we have created in the seas.  Indeed, the oceans seem increasingly characterized by constant presence of such noise recalls the “background hum” of oceanic shipping lanes that resounds across the oceans, by modeling a global soundscape seeks mapping the range of sounds ships create in transatlantic voyages, that seem the actual material reminder of the increased intensity of a global network of shipping lanes.  Such sound levels, to be sure, often obscure the cresting of waves, with the upshot of radically compromising the auditory experience of the ocean for its actual inhabitants–especially imperiling animals that employ sounds to communicate, cetaceans from whales to dolphins, in ways that may mislead the sonar skills they have evolved to map their own courses underwater, in ways that create more than auditory interference with how they experience space.  And with noise traveling some 4.3 faster in the watery medium than in air–and traveling at an unchanging intensity over considerable distances–the gigantic impact of large-cargo vessels that generate more noise than we would often permit on shore from constantly running diesel engines creates considerable ambient noise to which different marine creatures are especially vulnerable.

A map of the auditory intrusions of passenger vessels alone that was recorded and released by NOAA based on anthropogenic noise of cruise vessels alone suggest a shifting in the oceanic environment:


Yet the spectrum of noise from the chronic levels of noise modeled from larger commercial vessels was far more chronic:



And when summed, the picture that results is of a radically sonically altered and disrupted environment, apparently in ignorance of the disturbances that they create for actual (or any) ocean populations:




The map below registers sounds that extend to a depth of 650 feet in a similar color spectrum map–which doesn’t include either seismic exploration or Navy sonar noise that add considerably to the range of ocean sounds that obscure today’s songs of humpback whales.  Indeed, if whales often base their communications over expanses of hundreds of miles through their song, whale space has undoubtedly against such background noise in a a sea with startlingly few areas absent from auditory interference.  Such changes would not only affect the cetacean populations of marine mammals as they navigate underwater transit–if von Uexküll suggests that whales are attuned to other worlds, it might be important to contemplate what they make of the ships’ apparently unavoidable background sounds, or whether they accommodate to their presence.



lead_large NOAA


If one goes to 200 Hz, a slightly different picture of the local variations in background hums emerges:


ocean sea noise global map noaa nasa decibels noise pollution marine animals mammals 200hz_NOAA


But what might be considered more broadly is the very difficulty of erasing the imprint that such ships that travel across the seas exercise over the entire marine environment. The sonorous surroundings characteristic of the oceans were earlier mapped at 400 Hz and a depth of fifty feet by NOAA in 2012, from passenger ships, commercial ships, to seismic surveys in an annual average, present a similarly pronounced offshore acoustic disturbances and an even more pronounced augmentation of background noise offshore, as if hidden from landlocked observation stations, as if ships’ engines are only started at full throttle after arriving in the open seas, where ship captains or automated pilots crank up their speeds and plow full speed ahead:


1211-sci-OCEANNOAA Underwater Mapping Sound Field Mapping Working Group/HLS Research/ NCEAS–Details of North Atlantic Shipping and local noises near Long Island–from the New York Times


The rumors of transatlantic voyages notwithstanding, it is somehow wonderful to move from the noisy oceans to their landlocked counterparts.

The deep blue sites of relative silence, often confined to the areas close to the coast, may indeed obscure the extent of noise we have created far out at sea, far from the increasingly noisy shore, where we cannot hear their hum.  The shifts in the national–as well as the global–soundscape makes one wonder whether, in obscuring some sounds or making other sounds inaudible, one is not changing perceptions of space in ways that the great majority of  data visualizations cannot register.  But both present us with digitized images of sound-levels so strikingly ever-present that we can almost hear them resonate across space.

Like the deepest blue spots on the sound map of the United States, they mark the rare areas of respite in an every-noisier world.

Leave a comment

Filed under environmental mapping, megacities, national parks, National Parks Service, soundscape, urban sounds

The Swarming of Silicon Valley, CA

Some forty-five years ago, metonymy was willingly conflated with toponymy in Santa Clara Valley.  The formerly agrarian region gained a new status as a desirable destination whose moniker stuck because it connoted fertility, and assumed prominence in our collective mental imaginary as a place for reaping unheard economic margins of a new gold rush.  Maps of Silicon Valley suggest a deceptive open-ness of access even as it celebrates the clubbiness and power of a select number of tech companies that have increasingly come to dominate its space, in ways that have both lent continued interest to the project of “mapping” the economic activities of the region and defining a place that is increasingly difficult to define in meaningful ways on the map.  Bursting the boundaries of the freeways by which is navigated the space that was ringed by the 101, 280, 880, and negotiated on the 237, and 84, the corporate zone straddling multiple municipalities was long defined by inhabitants who were not its actual residents, but the corporations who congregated along  in lots and that embody the region.

If the properties were first sold by Stanford University to attract businesses to the region, the region developed its insularity as a highly educated hotbed of programmers, coders, and engineers, and increasingly become known by the money that moved through its undefined space.  And if Abraham Ortelius would confidently note that “because every part of the world will have its own map as well in this book, and will be discussed at some length,” in his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of circa 1570, which promised full coverage of the Ptolemaic ecumene, segregating specific coverage to individual sections, that “together with the land they constitute the entire globe” Michael Desrosiers’ annually produced maps offer a barometer of corporations across region whose insularity has long segregated it from the world in the annually-produced (and somewhat goofy) promotional maps of the region that has functioned as a social register of the region for the past twenty-five consecutive years, where they gained an unforeseen level of popularity since 1989, whose $1.7 million in annual sales in 2001 befits the region’s image, if they are also easily dismissed as “map porn.”


bursting its freeways


Silicon Maps produces pictorial maps that are effectively promotions, but both chart the continuing corporate crowding of the region, even across the dot com bust to the economic upturn of recent years, promising to “Put Your Company On the Map” that they themselves sell, as if to place the individual corporation within a complex of innovative practices by which the region’s landscape has come to be defined and to concretize.

The maps reflect both the insularity of Silicon Valley and mirror of the turn to globalization, and the worldwide reach of the corporations clustered there.  For although Silicon Valley lacks precise contours, to be sure, or a center, and defied the categories that would have made it easy to map, the mapping of the region and the affirmation of its unique incubating matrix as a site of density have long been important to advertise its own luster:  so has the image of a still-verdant region, illuminated as if by perpetual sun, beneath the leisure like activities of ballooning, sailing, and pleasure drives, even if it is ostensibly a land of work, an area of transit for planes and cars, with no workers visible, but whose proliferation of profits is reflected in its forest of business cards.  While it may seem perverse to chart the region marked by innovation by means of a static map, the image provides a reflection of the spatial imaginary that Silicon Valley has become:  the images that Desrosiers and company fabricate suggest the nature of Silicon Valley as simultaneously both a physical transitory space that one can enter and a mental space that is less able to be entered into or render visible, and a set of actors who compete for investors’ attention and whose products compete among consumers.  The serial production of these maps over twenty-five years suggests their shifting contours of changing characters, as much as they affirm the stability of its scale or its static nature.

The maps suggest the distributed nature of Silicon Valley as a network, and the shifting nature of that network as a locus of technological production and economic vitality all over the world.  The evolution of this distributed network suggests an archipelago of corporations whose actors often both circulated among each other and whose investors changed, maintained its symbolic and unity over an extended period of time, if not constituted its own order in and unto itself.


 “Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo—a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center—were already the best-known in the world.”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle


1.  While multiple explanations of the origins of the boosterish name have been floated–was it really Don Hoefler’s old column?  did the term earlier circulate among marketing teams? who gave it the wide purchase on a sector of the economy? did it indicate the economic hopes of a new generation? entrepreneurial insight, engineers, or potential business partners?–the many factors that defined Silicon Valley are not only difficult to recreate but difficult to parse.  Even as the confoundin question of what will be the “next” Silicon Valley has been optimistically floated over the past five years with frequency , and even plotted by Google Maps, rooted in an “ecosystem” that allows innovation and “a new active capitalism,” even as we find it incumbent to map a “super sector of advanced industry,” the difficulty of defining what or where Silicon Valley ever was has somehow been less widely assessed.  The importance of mapping Silicon Valley has assumed increasing importance as a way to define its continued prominence within the national economy, in the recent economic upturn, and to understand how an increasingly global economy takes so much of its spin from a site of continued entrepreneurial investment and corporate density, even if its center or bounds are difficult to define.


new valley


Old Sil Valley?Silicon Maps, 1991-2015


As we have come to take stock of the spread of Silicon Valley from the South Bay, hoping to understand its historical formation as a center and a locus for innovation in hi tech, multiple explanations of its origins have been staked.  It may be the great real estate deal offered corporations by Stanford University on unused lots leading them, to become a center that prefigured Citizens United in seeing corporations as its inhabitants:  lured by low taxes, an available pool of educated workers, and an eventual abundance of software and electronica, to lock into low 1975 real estate prices by 1978, and join what emerged from the 1980s as an entrepreneurial hub, investors helped to be transformed to a site whose economic vitality that, somewhat surprisingly and perhaps unwarrantedly, is eagerly been sought to be emulated worldwide down to its architectural details, as if to recapture the luster of the region as a heavyweight in an international industry.  The maps that Stanford officers used to entice executives to what is today Mountain View, without industrial or corporate presence in the 1950s, in sharp contrast with the skyrocketing real estate prices in today’s Bay Area.  If it suggests the long-term investment that predated venture capital funding, it reminds us of how quickly the region’s landscape changed around what seems the expanded plans for downtown San Jose.



Stanford University officials attracting prospective clients to settle businesses in the South Bay, c. 1950


Although never consciously planned as a region, the continuity in coporate clustering from the 1950s through the mid-1980s, when the region won its name, continued long after the dot com bust to resurrect in an Era of Devices with the energy that the personal computer once had:  rather than being a center of manufacturing, however, the geographical description of the region–which remains notoriously difficult to define in conventional geographical terms.  It perhaps heuristically exists as the material counterpart of the increasing expansion of the all too often undefined deep space Internet we have such trouble to visualize:  it is surely symbolic of the economic wealth generated on line, balancing the disembodied phenomenology of User Experience that makes it compelling to map the corporate topography that has assumed so prominent a place in our way of doing business, and indeed in our sociability.  But mapping Silicon Valley is also a way of answering the almost perpetual riddle about the replicability of the region that has attracted so much international attention in recent years.

Indeed, we almost need to map this site of corporate clustering that barely exists for its residents, but might be measured by the traffic through the cities of Menlo Park, Cupertino, San Jose, Los Altos, or Fremont now that the existance of a “Valley” barely registers in the mind.  But the region also occupies a place in our mental geography of a new El Dorado, and a seat of corporate wealth.  As much as a seat of residence, the region was long envisioned as one of corporate belonging in ways that were early represented in Michael Desrosiers’ clever caricature maps, featured in the header to this post, who hit on the idea of creating a collage of business cards, prefiguring Where’s Waldo?–which, its website claims, consistently sells over twenty times the volume of other city maps.  The mapping of Silicon Valley has continued to  survive the dot com bust.  As well as charting a corporate “ecosystem,” the maps hold a mirror to the Valley, it creates more than an imagined entity in the mind’s eye, but poses the illusion of a community that can be easily entered and to which admittance can be readily gained.


Old SYlvan Sil Valley


map pornSilicon Maps, 1991-2014


Even as outsource our own communicative skills and link us to the cloud in an Internet of Things, Silicon Valley expands as a region and what might best be called a ‘non’-place–which lacks a social center constituted by its inhabitants, but expands for those who are able to benefit from its expansion, as the new Greater Silicon Valley that spans loosely from Santa Cruz to Sacramento, in a dispersed economy that rewrites the relation of individuals and tech workers to space.


logos and locations


Silicon Valley is a place where we readily locate the microelectronics industry, biotech, and IT whose bounty seems symbolically inherited from its once abundant crops of apricots, plums, and other fruits.  The conceit concealed in its toponymy offered a metaphorical stability that conceals the degree to which it is a place through which cars, traffic, workers, money, and investment move, and in which the highest paid executives in the country live but whose community and environment is being increasingly undermined.  The renaming of a region once-fertile with fruit after the surface of integrated circuits etched on one of the most abundant elements oddly displaced the engine of its new economy onto part of a product, the semiconductor, as if to obscure the hidden engines of entrepreneurship and competition that drove the region, much as its intense competition was concealed under a veneer of upbeat optimism and untold profits:  the abundant creation of an integrated circuits made from silicon, and the expanding numbers of integrated surfaces to be placed on a chip both at low cost and relative ease, coopted a metaphor of abundance with surprising facility.

The microprocessors produced on ever-smaller circuit boards defined a new era of electronics products which soon provided a basis for data storage unites of Random Access Memory, pinning the local economy to new forms of intellectual property in computing and new engines of production, epitomized by Intel men in bunny suits or logos like Apple and, later, Facebook.  If the congregation of over 3,000 electronics companies in 1980 had defined the region as an agglomeration of small firms and entrepreneurs, contracts for custom-designed integrated circuits led to the commodification of memory chips and the rise of the integrated microprocessor, the expansion of computer-industry startups across the region was cast in an curious chiasmus with the fertility of the ground, as the contraction of farmlands was replaced by new lots, corporate campuses, and offices that drove up real estate prices in the entire region at warp speed.  The ever rapid assembly of increasingly powerful circuit boards, melded with the speed of travel among and between manufacturing and corporate sectors along the region’s freeways, soon led a the surface of replication, re-engraving, and a downloading of memory to designate a sector of the economy that seemed to expand worldwide, altering notions of subjectivity and space alike in ways too vast and complex to assess yet, but are epitomized in the activities of assembling and reading blogposts.





“The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle

2.  Naming the  region after a surface for an integrated circuit to be encoded with memory etched has proved a particularly compelling notional map.  The name was perfect expression of the utopian nature of Silicon Valley and the big claims for rebuilding information circuits from the ground up.  The surface etched for a circuit stuck as a spatial imaginary, because Silicon Valley was in essence engraved from the ground up, encoded with new matrixes of economic structures and circuits of commerce, work, and investment that seemed so ingenious from the start and whose big, big dreams were based on making circuits small, small, small.

Even if the region of Silicon Valley is no longer a site of chip manufacture, Silicon Valley became the privileged identifier of an industry by a magical metonymy which seemed able to be extended to a bucolic landscape of northern California.  The naming of the region after the cheaply replicated and infinitely encoded space of the chip has stuck far beyond a marketing ploy in an industry removed from industrial centers, which expanded with the adoption of languages that allowed the sort of large-scale programming able to maintain large software projects, and increasingly expressive code, and readily maintainable operating systems and graphic interface from Windows to OS X to Android, that redefined the wealth of the region and increased investment in its products.  As much as a new geography of work, it portended and facilitated new geographies of communication and networked systems:  “Silicon Valley” grew as it offered a space of linkage of networks–and through the internet–that removed individuals from their location in a space.  Even if Silicon Valley became spatially defined as a geographical entity, it was a lure and an ideal space of the swarming of IT workers, coders, software designers, and entrepreneurs, rather than being a place or location, even if, with globalization, it designates the interlinking of the online world:  although Silicon Valley has always been more of a way to move through space than a place–a site bounded by limits and defined on a map–the corporations who settled on the cheap lots of its expanse, encouraged by contracts with the defense industry, assumed the name soon after it gained new attention as a site of expanding returns, producing an endless stream of personal products attracting entrepreneurial investments, that continued to blossom–even when corporations started outsourcing much of the actual manufacturing process to locations overseas, and established satellite distribution centers, service centers, and tax shelters outside California in ways that made the region more glocal than local–if it ever had been.

For Silicon Valley defined itself by its exceptionality as existing outside the usual criteria for measuring space and time.   The very problem of defining what “Silicon Valley” was quickly came to stand for a new relation to technology or an unbounded reaction to the online world seems particularly helpful to define as spatial situated if not rooted in a specific place.  The name hopefully marked a new sector of the nation’s economy that has since become its most conspicuous and most economically productive, whose continued insularity and exceptionalism seems to have transferred to economic productivity as a point of global envy.  But the problem of mapping its relation to space is, in a sense, ignored by fixation on its valuation and productivity.  Rather than developing as a community, however, what we call or construe as “Silicon Valley” is not a region, but the network of industries whose code has both become a center of IT employment and disproportionate entrepreneurial investment, although its corporate archipelagos, even as they are mapped locally, continue to exist as oddly separate from its social space–and assumed the odd status of a global center of investment whose definition was difficult to pin down, even if it also had to exist–and defined a setting where IT workers and designers congregated and were drawn–a workspace with uneasy relation to its physical place, creating an uneven playing field worldwide, despite or notwithstanding the bright optimism of their utopian dreams.  For Silicon Valley reveals how the world is truly increasingly spiked:


Silicon Valley's Place in Global Network

(The placement of this image of interconnectivity in what seems like the antiquated monitor of an old computer screen not too subtly suggests that the world’s surface is here measured by investment in IT–and the new notion of mapping that it necessitates.)

While the rise of Silicon Valley at the same time as globalization–a trend datable from circa 1989–is a topic that bears further attention, the new potential of silicon chips to organize information that researchers at the Photonics Research Group in Ghent (Belgium) when they created a self-reflexive mapping of the globalization of hi-tech in 2oo9, revealing the survival of an artisanal heritage in an age of big data, etching the quaintly conservative and all too retrograde Robinson projection of the globe at the quite unprecedented scale of 1 trillion:1 on an optical silicon chip of forty micrometers nods to American ingenuity even if it trumpeted tech–not with micrometer calipers, but to boast the abilities of scale reduction.   As much as charting space, the chip-map announces global victory of its medium, by illustrating the integration of optical circuits by light modulation, using 200 mm processing to illustrate a million-fold multiplication of components crammed onto one chip on four layers, as a “micromap” of the global scale of web-based interconnectivity.





All maps effectively play with the limits of encoding information to attract visual attention to themselves, and the notion of mapping a practice of coding and encryption seems particularly problematic for the information industry.  If this post offers multiple ways of “mapping” the contents and locations and players in Silicon Valley, the region exists most prominently in space as a site of investing and employment–and a site with a premium of claims to intellectual property–than a place that can be occupied:  it is a linked and a liminal space, which based itself on a set of protocols for interacting with a screen or monitor, whose mapping was less often about fixed definition than its appraisal.

The region became a center for the concentration not only of entrepreneurial investment but wealth, and was an early site of the super-rich in 2008:


mapping superrich


The region continues to exist as an attractive center of investment, but its truncated descriptor never designated a fixed place so much as a lure:  its elasticity seemed apt to denote a site that served as something like a nerve center for dispersed fabrication facilities and service centers around the world.  The evocative place-name that fabricated the non-place as a location where one was absent, and naturalized an economy that needed no geographical relation to its local economy;  masking the oddity of using second most abundant element on Earth as the name for a new industry for investment.  At the time that the region had attracted executives to the west coast with promises of stock options and later IPO’s in the 1960s in ways that were a premonition of the subsequent expansion of personal computing and the cognitive rewiring of the Internet, its expansion could not be foreseen, it was already suggestive of a new topology of work.  Although some advertising gurus claim to have heard the term in the mid-1960s, the toponymical coinage stuck as something that compellingly signified its nature as an insider culture of innovation and intellectual property where silica somehow replaced the gold standard.  The metaphorical image of “silicon growing” that came to explain the expansion of the industry, and to capture the sense of continual innovation that became increasingly removed from the fabrication and assembly plants which migrated overseas.

The metonomy of Silicon Valley perhaps long allowed its complicated topology to be overlooked, as if space or spatial stiltedness did not, in fact, matter:  the image of the exactly replication of silicon chips gained traction as a metaphor for this corporate blossoming, and belies the need to map the emergence of steepest economic inequalities and equity that exist in the world.  The region was early defined by the amount of investment made in circuitry and the products that they promised.  The record funds needed for start-ups in Silicon Valley soon arrived, with executives from the East, as the region morphed from the property lines of the orchards that once defined the Valley of Heart’s Delight, abandoning a fixed shape of fields from which migrant workers supplied the world with what seemed an endless supply of dried apricots, cherries, and prunes, as sales force teams applied the aura of the region’s fertility to the production of personal electronics encoded with the semiconductors and chips that were both products of local labor, often from migrant workers’ families, but where the real money lay in its intellectual properties and the promise to reconnect users everywhere.  Silicon Valley has of thirty years provided the matrix for new notions of connectedness on varied platforms, but exists not as a clear workspace, so much as the DOC appellation for corporate entities and the devices that have included ever more powerful microprocessors, from the 4004 that introduced ROM and RAM to ever smaller chips to encode memory to the atom and Pentium, the marketing of technology in products from calculators to personal computers created huge windfall revenues even as the bulk of the wealth it produced has continued to prove particularly elusive for many of its residents.


4004_die_large 40004


The preposterous basis for locating a name in a conduit of memory was almost predicated on rewiring the region from the memory of the land.  Although “Silicon Valley” firms have been among the most famous for being eager to reduce their carbon footprints, and Going Green, the formerly very fertile area Silicon Valley remains by nature poorly defined as the urbanized areas around the South Bay by Google Maps, which almost traces an outline around an expanded grid of paved streets and semi-suburban grids along the network of freeways by which the region is primarily experienced and defined, as a matrix of roads and exchanges that oddly emulates the labyrinthine pathways of the chip itself:





And while the region’s leaders–Google, Apple, Intel, and Facebook–vaunt their dedication to Green and a low carbon footprint as an order of social responsibility, the region of Silicon Valley rewired the fertiility on the ground, and conceal the greatest dense of superfund sites in the state–despite the recent promises the same companies have made to restore wetlands, banish the “heat islands” of parking lots, and replace asphalt with drought-resistang greenery, as well as, in some cases, even replanting fruit trees:  the roof of Facebook’s new building even promises its own ecosystem with hiking trails amidst full-grown trees; Apple plans to plant apricots, pears, and apples.  But is this drive toward restoring local landscapes a sort of weak repentance for the depth of inroads that the companies have made on the environment–or the decreased demand for human labor in the second economy which is not only replacing physical jobs, but making physical jobs disappear.  Yet the rapid increasing capacities for computer memory cannot conceal the deep impact that the old manufacturing jobs have left on the land.





More locally, however, Silicon Valley maps itself as a landscape that has long been primarily characterized by corporate productivity and identity–most famously in the pictorial maps designed and annually refashioned by Michael Desrosiers–and how these map onto its reality, rather than in terms of space:  for here, the regular rules of time and space do not apply, or objects, as figured in the Desrosiers maps that were produced as the region became integrated within paper maps, hover in an undefined space or matrix, as much as they occupy fixed positions in a perspective plane that one can meaningfully scan.


silicon-valley-746836Map by Samykolon; Wikimedia; National Geographic/


So much is evident in the collective maps that the largest players of the region devised to remap themselves in the region, channeling the graphical skills and stylistic abilities of Desrosiers’ firm, which has emerged as the region’s collective cartographer from the late 1980s.  In the same years as one began to talk about globalization and as Silicon Valley products gained an audience worldwide, the then far smaller enclave of Silicon Valley regularly produced promotional images of itself that held something of a mirror to its expanding industries, stylizing the congregation of corporations between the 101 and 880 as a paradisal group of the newly arrived.  The notion of this mirror seems appropriate to the heterotypic construction of the region less as a bounded city or location, remaking of the region as a site for commercial branding and a matrix for massive investments.  For even though the “silicon chip” is less emblematic of the region today, and chip manufacturing spread to Asia and offshore areas, the metonym that the toponym promises in this propositional image of the coherence of the region, moving from the individual object (the silicon chip) to the industry, and the name of region that is less due to anything inherent about its place or inhabitants than the software industry it suggests, and the goods that circulate through it–rather than the place that they create.  These colorful maps increasingly came to chart the circulation of intellectual capital and the energy of intellectual property–here, the time of microprocessing circuits becomes space–rather than they carry the pretense of spatial orientation or even of defining a fixed location, each serving as a sort of archeology of the business life of the region rather than its land.

If history influences and shapes how we see reality, it also shapes how we understand space.  And this erasure of place–and indeed the constitution of the region as less of a fixed place, than a space through which money, goods, capital, intellectual property, and corporations move, as so many commuters–suggests the unique nature of Silicon Valley as a non-place (more on that later), and the triumph of metonymic function over a toponymic stability in its name.  For the shifting architecture of Silicon Valley as a metonym for the industry that exists there makes a walking tour of towns like Cupertino, Menlo Park, San Jose or Palo Alto an illuminating illustration of how the arrival of industry changed its relation to the former openness of space.  This post examines the constancy in the shifting definition of Silicon Valley in concealing the space it offers to bring together different communities, and remaps the relation of its material creation to what was once the Santa Clara Valley, even as the region expands over space, driven less by a relation to a fixed product, but the spread of investment in the region’s companies online web-based business, and the removed relation to material products that this expansion represents.



sillicon valley-3


Yet was that motion an inevitable product of the region’s longstanding uneasy relation to place?  The annual images that map the Valley created by Desrosiers and what is now Silicon Maps replaces regional toponymy with a rough collation of business cards, at an intersection of branding and information, but can hardly be said to really constitute a “space” or “place,” after all.  The product provides a telling encomium to the region and its contradictions, and the difficulty of knowing what to map–or what data to choose to examine and foreground–when one looks at the region in which a clustering of corporations have defined themselves as its residents, designed to boost businesses’ market valuation in a region where valuation is the name of the game–noting the “high perceived value to the people who receive it.”


mazeSilicon Maps (1991)


The cornucopia of plenty by which Silicon Valley has been mapped for over thirty years creates a sense of place where one is in fact hard to define.  If not absent from the map, the promotional elision of Silicon Valley with its scenery conceals the deep rewriting of the region as something like a board game, with little actual relation to its environment.  The power of such a metaphorical remapping of the landscape is deeply tied to the preservation of an ideal of the bucolic setting of Silicon Valley, and its assertion of the ongoing vitality of the Valley as a privileged site of innovation.

If cultivating such a market, it pronounces the local degradation of the Valley is masked by pronounced dissonance between its metaphorical mapping and its configuration on the ground.  Silicon Valley is viewed quite differently from within or without its corporate spaces.  Even as Silicon Valley has generated both a staggering number of jobs and amount of money in one puzzlingly apparently perversely specific geographic location, what is at once so prominent a node of work and investment is particularly difficult to map, in part since it defines itself with such little reference to the material world.   (Although “Cupertino” is well-known as Time Zone location, and a surrogate for “Pacific Time,” few know where the site of Apple Computers actually is.)  The problem of mapping Silicon Valley is almost one of giving location to a place whose location is scarcely legible.

To be sure, the map itself defined Silicon Valley as a place–remaking it against other images of urban centers as lying outside of a built environment, and not able to be mapped as lying on straight or clearly surveyed lines.  Desrosiers’ view of Silicon Valley as a single microcosm–resembling the “microcosmic” city views after the cartoonist Saul Steinberg’s 1976 rendering of westward bird’s-eye view of New York, View of the World from Ninth Avenue, if careful not to infringe on issues of copyright–questions its relation to the concept of place, and indeed of the Valley’s status where the world is no longer understood or measured by fixed lines, but opens before the viewer as a Valley of corporate logos, each moored locally but proliferating world-wide online.  The encomia to corporate plenty referenced a longstanding tradition of the encomiastic views of urban architecture; but “freed” from a specific setting, buildings are replaced by corporate structures whose online presence resonate the viewer more than the verdant surroundings to resurrect the forty-five year old slogan that trumpets a bucolic setting of the “glocal”–as if it were environmentally conducive to corporate growth.   In conveying an image of corporate stability,  the annually reissued map of ‘Silicon Valley’ had come to spread north to San Francisco by 2001, both to reflect the inability for its corporations to be confined, and encompass the multiplication of investment, spinning off of further companies and projects expanded that expanded on the internet and tech boom, spurred by the inflation of real estate and the filling-in of what seemed an open area of cheap land, which became a site for global commerce to an extent difficult for individuals to conceive.



It was called the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages. If not for the monks, everything the world had ever learned would have been lost. Well, we live in a similar time, when we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle


3.  The formerly secluded verdant paradise can’t contain the proliferation of brands formerly nested in its landscape as more corporations wanted to show clients that they had arrived.  It also signaled the break with the past–and with past models of business–that Silicon Valley cultivated, even as it grew into a hub of global commerce.




The almost improbable pastoral metaphor naturalized how the new collectives of corporations had spread across much of the Bay Area, assuming individual identities as persons that predates how the Citizens United decision removed limits on individual corporate expenditures in politics– echoing the largely libertarian ethos of the region.  The connotations of abundance and fertility in the toponym is reified in the publicity maps marketed annually by Silicon Maps, who pictorial maps, such as that pictured in the header to this post, suggest the difference between how Silicon Valley is viewed quite differently from within or without its corporate spaces.  The deep cognitive dissonance between this metaphorical mapping and the crowded configuration on the ground, and the perennial attractive sheen perpetuated in Desrosiers’ tableaux depicting a space one wants to inhabit, inhabited by who has been able to settle on its sunny shores, that may be absent for the uninitiated.  The expansion of its space isn’t irrational, but has created a tight-knit community both expansive and insular in its parts:  it is something like both a utopic space that conceals its status as a “non-place,” to borrow the term of the French anthropologist Marc Augé, who has argued that a range of similar “in-between spaces”–spaces for moving between and betwixt, from airports to highways to the computer terminal’s interface–convey a sense of placeless rather than the stability of tradition as liminal spaces.  Such a “non-place,” to be sure, breaks down distinctions between workspace and playspace, and between such givens as private and public space:  it is a space through which things travel through, even as it lacked its own center or geographical stability.   Indeed, they mask the longstanding degradation of the region, by picturing it as a destination akin to an older era’s board game–a game from the time of the first map that Desrosiers designed, which appears something like a hybrid of Candyland and Carriers.

The swarming of Silicon Valley refers both to the arrival of workers in the region, where some 30% of the workforce is tied to high-tech, and successfully seeking and attracting workers from much of the country, and, often, restricting hiring from competive companies, purportedly to keep salaries from rising out of control.  Counties like Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco revealed the strongest gains in jobs in high tech in the four year period 2009-13 in the nation, far outpacing the rise of data centers and tech centers in other regions of the country:  and despite considerable attention to predicting what would be the “next” Silicon Valley, a question asked since the 1970s, the somewhat surprising durability of the region in an age of globalization seems of unique geographical as much as economic interest.



The academic nature of the problem raises questions not only of PR or branding, but the critical mass of programmers and coders who gravitate to the region and not only move between different jobs, but readily gain entrepreneurial backing for their own start-ups that build off of a large pool of engineers.  In an age when tech industries seem disembodied from location, the region is no longer advantageous to live in, but  Rather than attracting folks by health plans, benefits, or even a particularly stable progressive environment, despite its association with progressive politics.



This post suggests its popularity as a figurative Christening of a region has much to do with how it obviates any critical mapping, and seems to naturalize a warping of the boundaries of the regional and personal–lines otherwise hard to clarify by the conventional signifying structures.  For while the contours and expanding area we call “Silicon Valley” is often redrawn and redefined, and the region might exist as one of the most promotionally mapped areas of the world, the lack of an actual location of the Valley makes it challenging to map, even if it considered a primeval “entrepreneurial ecosystem” and remains a place for businesses to stand out.  Indeed, the region stands out as one of the sites of the highest concentration of wealthy inhabitants, if it is also characterized by high levels of poverty–and it stands out as a model for future job-creation in ways that make its mapping especially important.

The mapping of Silicon Valley raises the problem of seeing through maps, and understanding the dynamics among the sorts of populations that live there.  And the recent championing of the region not only as a distinct center of entrepreneurial activity, but something of an economic prototype of economic growth in the nation makes it particularly important not only to analyze, but to explore in order to understand the consequences of its particular economic intensity and indeed entrepreneurial hyperactivity.  The surprisingly clear definition by the MIT economists Jorge Guzman Scott Stern, who sought to map a distribution of the successful start-ups in the region from 2001provides something of an objective image by assessing the success of new businesses registered in the region from 2001 to 2011, ranking them by number of patents and indices of “meaningful growth” revealed a striking distribution in the region with its epicenter in the Santa Clara Valley.




Long after buildings of chip fabrication, assembly, and production have migrated overseas together with service centers, and the age of manufacturing personal computers appears to have run its course, the continued economic gravity of the region’s intellectual copyrights persist:  the ineluctable pull of the region that seems rooted in a name has itself has expanded from a region to a sector of the American economy and, even more broadly, all sites of commerce in software and user experience.  Encouraged by the almost terminal velocity of its own production of products, and legal  copyrights for microcode processors of increasing power, the conceit of “Silicon Valley” is problematic to map in any objective way at the very time that it changed the nature of communications worldwide.  If its expansion called into question the situated nature of geography or the geographical situation of human activity, or collective practice, it’s important to remember the inescapability of the existential reality of its geography.  For an area increasingly dedicated based on information retrieval and storage, and the open-ness of all knowledge, the space of Silicon Valley has over-written itself multiple times in the very recent past of which almost no trace remains–almost as if memory is obliterated from its landscape.

But even as the networks of computing have rewritten the workplace and our modes of communication, the geographical location of the region where its capital is based is too often obscured by the increasing opacity of most maps.  At the same time a suggesting the uncertainty of what a future map of the region that has become so central a conduit of capital might be, this post offers an excavation of Silicon Valley’s relation to its past, and an attempt to resituate in a more detailed landscape.  In this sense, its “space” may better correspond to Michel Foucault’s notion of a “heterotopia” of modernity, as a space that stands apart from the conventions that mark the division of space or measuring of time, that seems open to all, but is accessible by few, and stands outside most of the criteria of measurement we use in maps.  To examine these spaces, this post aims to consider the steep changes that its growth has wrought on the region’s environment and on its lived space.  As much as map the economic performance of its major players and the genealogies among electronics firms, start-ups, and corporate brachiation of micro-computing, this post attends to the space of Silicon Valley as a region redefined by its status as a center of continued transit and the phenomenon of swarming that offset the mobility the internet should allow by removing work from a fixed space–and problems of the status of Silicon Valley as a “non-place” create.

The allegory of productivity that “Silicon Valley” claimed was a sleight of hand that was most likely to be perpetuated in a map.  The mapping of Silicon Valley is especially important because Silicon Valley is the sort of site where the question of insider versus outside knowledge is always in the game, and the knowledge of the actual lay of the land a form of secrecy for those in the know.  Silicon Valley is a sort of mythical game–a fabulous place or El Dorado–that cannot be pinned in one place, or in a region, even if it seems to naturalize itself as a land of wealth and fortune, built on the illusion of an information economy that it creates–though productivity of the region has a huger carbon footprint than one would acknowledge.  For if Silicon Valley remains both a geography of innovation, capital, and work, far more  than a space of investment that generates its own concealed toxic waste.  But the manufacturing industry of chips have undermined whatever fertility remained in the formerly agrarian region known as Silicon Valley, which only survives as a reference for its unpredictably abundant economic growth.  Indeed, the troping of a natural region of abundance provided a confusion between categories of nature and culture that seemed apt for an area whose exact objects of production could not be grouped or defined–and became the ultimate for of copyrighted insider knowledge themselves.  The first poster maps that tracked the rapid expansion of corporations across Silicon Valley boast an almost oblivious confusion between nature and culture as categories that has only grown over time, as an always poorly defined region that spread municipalities and grew on freeways has spread past its origins in Cupertino, San Jose and Palo Alto as a hub of software start-ups imitated and emulated worldwide, as if it were a proved template for economic success and innovation–and indeed a metaphor for a roadmap–despite Silicon Valley’s complete failure as a community, or as a productive civic and environmental space.  Indeed, despite the language of Green that has been adopted at Intel, Google, Apple and Cisco to lower their carbon footprints, the green of Silicon Valley conceal the deeply toxic superfund sites underground.





Although we think of space as undifferentiated and smooth in its topology, the unlevel clustering and clumping of Silicon Valley reveals a far more complex surface, whose shifting links to its landscape beg to be mapped in its entirety.  While the compressing of the history of Silicon Valley’s existence as a place in maps cannot be excavated at one go, this post starts to examine how the mental maps constructed the region as a site of social interaction in ways that have overwhelmed the landscape that used to exist–a landscape which the very name Silicon Valley seems to herald as a land of plenty.  This post will consider the difficulty of mapping both the region and consider the lack of any clear roadmap for the future, as the swarming of the region has erased all traces of earlier landscapes, and has grown unprecedentedly from the area of Cupertino to come to occupy a huge stretch of land from Sacramento to Santa Cruz as a Silicon Valley writ large, providing a promise of future storage even as it consumes the land on which it lies.  Cast as a “hub” or an elusively mythic “El Dorado,” the economically productive if uneven ground of Silicon Valley compelled continued attention and scrutiny and mapping, if not only because how the ways that its collective practices remain specifically spatially situated seem improbable and unclearly understood, unless the degree of investment in the region is understood by being somehow amalgamated to the formerly verdant landscape.  But the new relation to work that the region offers on its corporate archipelago is itself a bit lonely, alienating and the landscape pretty foreign.


El Dorado?


“‘Safer to build it here.  To keep all the patented stuff secure.'”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle

4.  The explosive economic and geographic growth of Silicon Valley as an idea over the last fory-five years parallel its own exceptionality in its production, projected to only increase, of items moving from the personal computer and peripherals to devices in our homes.  Now plotted beneath a reticulated grid, or shown as such, it is virtually a global stage to itself, fitting for a globalized world.  If “Silicon Valley” has changed as a site of corporate corporate congregation, and coders and programmers, as its past has not only fallen away, both with its perpetual positioning of itself in the future, and revaluing of the notion of location, the spatial practices that underlie Silicon Valley’s construction may not be well understood.  Although the older landscape has been largely erased by the intensity of economic swarming of the region, the prominence of the region in our vision of the future is disproportionately huge:  it is even hard to imagine, given its current prominence, that map of the state of California existed in the mid-1980s without the region on it.  While it is distinguished not only by its economy, but the highly educated workers, highly paid executives, and entrepreneurs it attracts, even as the IT economy spreads world-wide, the continued arrival of highly educated workers, but of firms with relatively low costs of doing business seems, in its insularity, truly separate from the country, reveling in a similar notion of intellectual property.

The congregation of corporate wealth across Silicon Valley is difficult to chart objectively in space, and its influence on how space is configured across the Bay Area is difficult to minimize.  It is nearly impossible to unpack the historical redefining the Santa Clara Valley and nearby areas as if they constituted a continuous region, or compress the history of the region onto the surface of one map, but the maps provide something of a register for understanding this layering, and examining its consequences for the future of the same landscape.  Indeed the production of products that compress information, relay information, and fabricate memory in ever decreasing forms also exists–and perhaps gets its most clear materialization–on the map, as something of a cancer that has come to inhabit the land.


logos and locations


As a site of intellectual and technological exchange and innovation, Silicon Valley long asserted its own exceptionality separate from the country, and imagined it had no actual environmental presence–even as that presence has atrophied and grown.  If the name “Silicon Valley” conjures the riches of its agrarian past, that past is increasingly removed both in time and space, not only in San Jose but far around.  Indeed, the organization of Silicon Valley constitutes such an insider culture, that it creates a marked dissonance between mapped and perceived space.

The swarming of Silicon Valley cannot be best charted empirically, financial, or economically, but in its continued vitality as a privileged site of innovation:  the considerable density of competing corporations masks the increasing difficulty of gaining an insider’s view on the complex fortunes and concentration of investment in the region predate the Ages of Google, LinkedIN, Facebook, and Twitter–those economic engines whose business is the extraction of personal data.  The region has its own lexicon, albeit one that has been adopted worldwide.  To be sure, these corporations have sold products that have changed not only the region, but the face of global interaction–redefining terms that seem extracted from the lexicon of social anxiety of middle school–“liking,” “friendship,” personal communication–to market an altered notion of the personal that has altered forms of sociability and notions of privacy worldwide, in ways that seem to derive from the sheen of calm that radiate from the region of Cupertino, Mountain View, and San Jose.

The economic ascendance of this region has changed  our longstanding relation to printed paper, indeed, as a privileged medium of privacy, and linked us to one another in absurd ways.  But it is less well noted that the rapid expansion of a single site from which such webs develop has also remade a region in ways that demand to be more clearly mapped, given how their product offers a distinctly new way of relating to space.  Can one argue that there was, indeed, a sense of space from which the engines of the internet emerged?  Or map its origins in something like a material form, rather than adopting the metaphor of a cloud?  Silicon Valley was never a single or fixed “place.”  The perpetuation of its fiction and unique status in the world as a center of start-ups and a highly valued software industry perpetuate the fiction that it is a place–and is distinguished as a region that receives at present almost one half of all venture capital investments in the United States, which depends for its continued vitality on an ability to continue to attract suitably skilled tech workers, address problems of both housing and traffic that the swarming to the Valley has posed, and allow similar opportunities for success to the many residents of the region who aren’t or have not profited much from its current astronomical economic growth.

These are steep demands.  But it confidently pointed itself to a future, and located that future within the products that it sold.  It is no accident that the rise of Silicon Valley as a region included in maps of California parallel the time of the date most widely identified with globalization, 1990–the date the first saw the consciousness of the rise of C02 emissions, and indeed awareness of the interlinked nature of global warming to local industries:  the clean of Silicon Valley, if illusory, as we shall see below, may have indeed provided a large part of its particular sheen in the South Bay.

A compelling conceit of “Silicon Valley” is that it is impossible to define on the map, and offers an “other space” of shifting definition objectively impossible to “map” as a fixed region or an archipelago with stable directions of growth.  Silicon Valley’s longstanding mutability–and indeed its erasure of its past–has made the term a valuable conceit, however, not only to define its difference from the rest of the working world but to imagine that it does exist.  The unique nature of how Silicon Valley exists by a distinct set of rules for competition, innovation, engineering, and investing have generated a sense of swarming frightening because it increasingly sees itself as working best by its own rules, and most often working as primarily responding to an international economy.  Its impossibility to be located or fully mapped parallel its increasing insularity.  As a region that grew up around the production of silicon chips as a commodity, and expanded on new ways to market and personalize the microprocessor, but went beyond a marketing ploy:  it is an illusion of plenty, perhaps, based on the utter availability of all that exists online, and that also seems to in the radically re-configured (and now forgotten) Valley of Dreams, where the most privileged place for “memory” exists in a chip, online, or in the cloud.

Despite the legendary open-ness and meritoriousness of Silicon Valley, the reasons for its narrative of economic exceptionalism remains difficult to map, even as it is eager to be emulated.  The felicitous metonymy of its toponym is so removed from geographical place to extend wherever the industry of which it become a metonym has spread, indeed, that what “Silicon Valley” is is less clear than the swarming that it has become.  Inhabitants of “Silicon Valley” are more properly mapped as corporations, rather than physical landmarks or actual inhabitants–and the region is best defined by those liminal spaces or heterotopia through which pass monies, patents, engineers, designers, security experts and goods.  For despite the specificity of an evocation the region once known as the Santa Clara Valley, the spread of “Silicon Valley,” as its products touch the world, are more difficult to objectively survey than  regions of  California or the United States:  and with even the maps of Silicon Valley insisting on a topical focus, and perpetually redrawn in vague bounds, the parallel compulsion to map Silicon Valley–to try to localize the increasingly floating toponym first coined as a clever compression by marketers, and reveal it as a landscape of its own.  For the very same region that grew with the evangelical conviction that its products serve to “make the world a better place” have in turn erased one of the more bucolic places on earth:  indeed, local differentiation wha was named Silicon Valley is for the most part vanishing at the same time as it grows by providing an alternate reality mediated by the personal screen.  Could one argue that the shifting relation between information to privacy is informed by the world-changing solipsism that Silicon Valley has become, and the apparent relative blindness to the external world that its continued prosperity has perpetuated?

The growth of this capital of prosperity, that has now become perhaps the prime the engine of the American economy, where workers continue to generate more output than anywhere else in the nation was, of course, partly premised upon a changed relation to the land and erasure of its past and a uniquely fluid relation to space and play.   The “swarming of the valley improvised an infrastructure of very decisive economic advantages of skills and education, and whose insularity has a history of deeply disturbing and disorienting environmental effects.


Santa Clara ValleySanta Clara Valley, 1914 (from Mount Hamilton), History San Jose 


san JoseCorbis


The extent of the radical transformation of what might be called the local ecosystem of what is now widely known Silicon Valley–rather than the Santa Clara Valley–can be suggested by a recent mashup of the data that the United Park Service has compiled of sound levels across this region, as part of its larger project of color-coded mapping of sound levels across the nation; the considerably high range of sound around the peninsula to San Jose that the acoustic sensors revealed indicate that an area which has been described as a “rim city” is in fact not only plagued by traffic noise along its freeways, but now almost more polluted with man-made noise as the Port of Oakland or downtown San Francisco, with a longer continuous region defined by sound levels in the highest two ranges–where, of course, each ten decibel intervals mark a doubling of perceptible levels of sound:



Bay Area Sound Mapdata from National Parks Services’s Division of Natural Sounds and Night Skies, Kurt M. Fristrup; local Bay Area mashup by George Jones


The rising sound levels across Silicon Valley may be marked by the intensity of traffic on its street, but mark an invasion of noise that could suggest a compelling visualization of the swarming of populations far beyond the levels of the past, and a miasmatic expansion of man-made sound-levels across the region that stand in striking dissonance with its relative low density housing.  The sound-map reveals the radical remaking of the region to one that is the perhaps the most marked by human activity in the Bay Area, based on the registration of sound-levels on a summer day, that belies the conceit of the confusion of nature and culture in the region’s self-chosen toponym in days when it first emerged as a manufacturing center.


Silicon Valley at Night


The radical rewriting and rewiring of the landscape recast Silicon Valley as a destination for groups that attract capital, linked it to a growing pool not only of coders and engineers, but of venture capitalists attracted to invest in the region as a site of economic growth.  The statsu of the region as a globally unique site of investment and expertise has let its influence be felt by the cascading effects of a clustering of corporate colonies, form the warping of real estate prices, new costs of congestion, and pollution–even as the region retains a name of agricultural origins as a fig-leaf concealing its long-fading bucolic facade.


logos and locations


“Let me put it another way.  You know this isn’t what you might call a clock-in, clocked out type of company.  Does that make sense?”

Dave Eggers, The Circle

4. The evangelical confidence in an economic gospel of high tech has created the recent swarming of Silicon Valley that defined it as a region that has consumed what was left of an old agricultural space.  “Silicon Valley” was far more than a place from its first naming some forty-five years ago, and rarely appeared on maps of California maps even five years before its corporate settlement was increasingly mapped the logos and locations of its major companies and its charted corporate density beyond the 10, to a region spanning from Santa Cruz to Sacramento.  If Silicon Valley is somethings defined as a ‘workspace,’ it is something more like a space of investment, and a mapping of its own future.  Despite multiple maps and remapping of the region, its dynamics are hard to capture because its totality resists mapping:  the area might be most famously rendered by maps of economic performance, but the poster maps produced annually produced by Silicon Maps of its sun-drenched landscape make a unique promise of the existence of this made-up toponym as a place one can observe, if it is barely visible from the freeways through the region, from which one has no sense of entering a place or space–and indeed on which the individual moves rather than inhabits, and consistently does high quality work.  After all, the cultivation of Silicon Valley is partly the cultivation of an image of innovation.

Although these vanity maps are ephemera, but do heavy lifting both in manufacturing this place, and in mapping a space that has merited receiving extensive investment over time.  The map succeeds in persuading one that one can comprehend its almost undifferentiated corporate expanse as filled with distinct landmarks and nodes of work among which its visitors pass:  the map makes good on the story of a toponymy without etymological significance, but reflects the explosion of interest in the memory stored in the material chip, and the abilities of data compression it allows, and is less a location than a designation of a target for investors.  (Toponymy here does not generate metonymy, as Bordeaux wine or Roquefort cheese, but metonymy designates the region it has by extension overwhelmed:  the region has itself become a metonym for a way of life adopted world-wide and mediated on one’s “personal” screen.)  There are few who would have traffic with all the sites of work that are listed in the Desrosiers’ map, but the accumulation of corporate density is what constitutes the Valley, and may create the best cumulative map of life for those who work within it, and narrates the success story of the region such as it exists as an area where everyone does high quality work that they love.

The figurative notion of the region–a Valley that grows Silicon Chips!–naturalizes the swarming of the region in recent years.  And in illustrating the continued symbolic fertility of the region, such promotional maps reflect its settlement of its actual landscape by industry.  They document Silicon Valley’s privileged position in our mental imaginary and economy–both as a desired destination and a site of innovation aimed–without recognizable borders, and the conflation of corporate identity with the actual landscape. The expansion of such a “place” over forty-five years demands examination as recreating the region as a center of investment, financial investment, and intellectual innovation affirms its own centrality in an expanding market for security services and interactive industries.  For even as the continued centrality of the place of Silicon Valley as a center of start-ups seems contested, the material configuration of Silicon Valley demands to be mapped not for the dynamics of its workspace or the valuation of its multiple corporations but for the difficulty in mapping how its openness as a continued site for ongoing speculation and fertility, concealing the lack of transparency in remaking its landscape as a continuous region that extended far beyond its original historical location, as an abundance of corporations congregated from the 280 to the 680 to remake a territory from a freeways bounding orchards just forty years before.


logos and locationsSilicon Maps (2013)







SV_Patents_90_2009San Jose Mercury News


The quite colorful and seductively silly poster maps designed by Desrosiers’ firms perpetuate multiple myths of the Vally by a particularly clever sleights of hand.  They mask the competition of corporations and the environmental impact of their products and the particularly congested settlement of the area from Cupertino to Mountain View to Menlo Park and across Silicon Valley, they reflect that technology companies employ some 27% of the jobs that exist in the region.  It’s no secret that the paving over of a huge section of the sun-drenched region once filled with plum and apricot orchards in the Valley’s Mediterranean climate now paved have expanded the demolition of much of San Jose, rendering it more prone to urban heat.  Even as Silicon Valley corporations like Google and Yahoo compete for being more green, and, since 2011, Microsoft, ScanDisk, National Semiconductor, and Yahoo have thrown more money at serious efforts of tree-planting with local non-profit Canopy as cities from Palo Alto to San Jose took proprietary ownership and protection of remaining trees–and to renewable energy, the region has remained the most productive area of technology in the nations.   Yet the rapid growth of historical San Jose over the past four decades, fed largely by the swarming of Silicon Valley, transformed it from a land of orchards to an area where some 60% of the land is now covered by impervious roads, buildings, and parking lots whose urban tree canopy has often fell below 15% in 2013, when the city council anxiously planned additional potential tree planting sites in its parking lots, sidewalks, and public streets, utterly changing it from the past.

And yet, the removal of many of these allegedly “green” corporate campuses remain far from public transportation, often in ways criticized for their car-dependent design.  A considerable degradation of the environment of Silicon Valley occurred with the expansion of a corporate swarming of the region, often poorly mapped by economic metrics of the amount of moneys invested in the region or its economic returns.  Despite the potential mobility of Silicon Valley  as a space of investment, entrepreneurial interest, and the circulation of commodities, rather than a place of residence or work, the expansion of this corporate map suggests the contradiction between the local site where Fairchild Semiconductors still lies and the expansive region of the Bay Area that has now become an extension of what was once a single region.  While Silicon Valley is often mapped as a genealogy of corporations or a shift from industry to consumer goods that emerged as the internet and information highway reconfigured economic life, what would it look like to consider not its corporate networks, but the balance between the access to its space that it seemed to offer and the relative opacity created by its technological and corporate worlds?

The difficulty to map Silicon Valley lies less in its mobility or dynamism, than the ways it seek to normalize its relation to space, defining a single site of origin, even as it continues to cannibalize territory in direct relation to the growth of the traffic of internet-based businesses:  the region has become a site for the traffic of money, software expertise, and employment in something of a physical reminder of the expansion of web-based commerce that quite creepily make it best place to mint millionaires–and indeed to produce more millionaires than any country in the world outside the United States as a whole and China, and by far the most economically productive place in the United States of America.  The disproportionate economic engine, however, has begun to feel its own growing pains.  The perpetuation of an illusion of bucolic harmony is more than a vestige of the region’s old agrarian origins, but a celebration of its uniqueness.  The ongoing project of pictorial remapping the region reveals a continual rewriting of the region around the myths of Silicon Valley’s flourishing and uniqueness, and an increasing amnesia toward its own sense of place.  This post suggests that the illusion of its continued coherence and vitality has continued to attract entrepreneurial investment by cultivating an idea of open-ness, even if its culture is in fact quite closed.

By using a variety of maps of the region’s inhabitation, it seeks to reconcile the balance between insider and outside perspectives on how its unique relation to space, by offering one that has grown as it has long remained so unclearly mapped.




Indeed, a recent mapping of the sites of entrepreneurship–rather than work, property, or legal entities or municipalities–led Scott Stern to map the region as first and foremost as a space of “high-impact entrepreneurship,” rather than as a location, that began in the South Bay, east to Livermore, north to Marin County, and up along the peninsula.  Even as Silicon Valley is under assault for the pronounced clubbiness of its culture of programmers and rarely openly examined pronounced lack of female venture capitalists, the region has remained a particularly privileged site for valuation, investment, and speculation unlike other regions in the country that regard it as the space to watch for the Next Big Thing–despite its many possible emulators as tech hubs around the world–from Silicon Hills, Silicon Forest, Silicon Prairie, Silicon Square, Philicon Valley (Philadelphia) to Silicon Allée, Silicon Wadi, Chilecon Valley (Santiago), and many more who seek to define the unique relation of local and global in a post-industrial economy.  Yet no space has proved as productive, or as much of a focus of investment.

For the place of Silicon Valley as a node of technology, interactivity and user experience that seems a gateway to global markets seems to be able to be reproduced, but seems to retain a unique relation to space, balancing its ideals of open-ness against the sources of its intense concentration of worldly capital.  Its steel and glass smokeless buildings of offices and parks are increasingly integrated into its verdant landscape, as if to blend nature and culture and naturalize the flourishing of its corporations–as much as its residents.  Indeed, despite a huge growth in the salaries and benefits of the successful few of the current information economy, the continued stagnation of wages of middle- and lower-income workers’ wages have meant that income inequality across Silicon Valley is increasingly unequal–and few can afford to exist in its currently elevated real estate market, where in four decades a predominantly agricultural economy of land-use has been replaced by a growing of what goes under the name of an “information economy,” whose leaders once preached egalitarianism, and continue to espouse a sort of meritocracy, but where even as the local job market expands, some 20% of household incomes stagnate below 30,000, and a further 35% are between 35,000 and 99,000–even as the region generates extraordinary wealth:  incomes of high-wage earners stood some 4.4 times that of low-wage earners, higher than anywhere in California–a quite pronounced high wage/lower income inequality, despite an apparent Gini Coefficient of income inequality approaching zero (0.44461).


Inequaltiy Scatter_v01_Colour REVISED

As a unique center of investment in the expanding information highway of the early 1990s, the maze of highways in Silicon Valley became  nourished by bus-loads of tech workers, software engineers, and coders who moved through what existed more as a non-place–a site through which moved capital, products, and goods, rather than worked in its physical site.  Yet the continuity and identity of the region as a site of continued fertility is clear.  If as a region it remained difficult to circumscribe, the continued vitality and coherence of Silicon Valley has been an important founding myth for the region:  the maps of its landscape, as the annually produced vanity maps in the header to this post, foreground the shifting cast of characters in the region’s main actors, driven by valuation, and reveal a distribution that lacks any localized center or fixed  bounds.  The myth of the economic insularity of Silicon Valley as a spontaneous generator of profits just recently resurfaced in Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address, when the President repeated a narrative of how the region created “jobs that didn’t even exist ten or twenty years ago–jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla . . .” and privileged the region as emblematic of the most well-off.  The continued rhetoric that the Silicon Valley map deploys of corporate plenty had not only infiltrated the State of the Union by 2015, but the President tacitly recognized the its arrival as a significant lobbying force in Washington, as social media now tops the list of big spenders to the tune of $14 million a year.

The attempts to map the growth of a network of its corporate community reveals its distinct character by both currying attention by inviting examination of an insider’s perspective and resisting being objectively mapped, often by revealing contradictions in its own coherence. And at the same time as achieving net neutrality, urging that the strongest “possible rules” to keep the internet open, fast, and without regulation, the laudable endorsement reveals Silicon Valley’s increasingly privileged place as a sizable corporate lobby and newfound political clout.  (It seems somewhat cynical hyperbole for the President to cast cyberspace as a new “Wild West” where “everybody is online, and everybody is vulnerable” at a Cybersecurity Summit in Palo Alto, given recent exposure of back-door programs of government surveillance by the NSA, the multiple stops of both President Obama and former President Clinton to the region signal its political prominence.)  Are the new faces of Silicon Valley deserving blame for having created a new relation to the world, or are they symptomatic of a global change in the economy of attention with broad consequences?  Such a shift even might be explored by excavating the radical transformation of the region known as Silicon Valley and its surroundings–rather than link its growth to a new elite composed of individual CEOs who seem too easily cast as bent on global domination.


Specters of Silicon ValleyDer Speigel


If the faces of these CEOs evoke a ruthlessness of a new generation of superheroes, keen on demonstrating their continued strength, the swarming of the region is best embodied in maps to be understood as a consequence of the unique space for investment it creates.  The difficulties of mapping Silicon Valley seems rooted in the contradictions between its vaunted openness and the difficulty of understanding the dynamics of its space with anything like transparency.  While Silicon Valley has origins in apparently opening its insider network as a landscape of speculation and valuation, the network of investment that animates the valley is of necessity opaque, making objective mapping particularly difficult to render its commercial operations in clearly legible form.  Since “Silicon Valley” first appeared in maps of California in the mid-1980s, it has loomed large in the mental imaginary as creating a space for interaction between investors, coders, software engineers, start-ups, and tech workers that blurred familiar lines of investment, work and even physical space.  If the term concealed the ways that such an interaction occurred, it has become of the site of a far greater density than its first pioneers could have ever imagined, or that the spawning of business cards across a sun-drenched valley south of San Francisco openly conveyed.  Although Der Spiegel accused the above rogues’ gallery as bent foisting “forced happiness”–Menschheitsbeglückungswerks–on the world, its concentration of economic activity seems driven by demand for returns, more than cultural values.

For the construction of Silicon Valley is less an effect of its current CEO’s thirst for power, re-writing of rules of global commerce, than a corporate overcrowding that has so long and successfully developed to have forced an increasing number of its “innovation industries” to shutter–as did some 2,500 in 2013–the drive to define oneself in a sea of corporate competition, even as its production of circuits or chips was long eclipsed.  The erosion of the open space of Silicon Valley–and the retreat of corporate colonies into individual compounds known now as campuses, may threaten to erased the very trading zones on which Silicon Valley traditionally based its explosion of profits.


“We find your Technology Map to be a most cost effective way to gain visibility as a High Tech leader in the Silicon Valley. We look forward to seeing our logo on the 2003 map/calendar.”

–CIENA Corporation, on Testimonials page of

“The Maps are used in all aspects of our company, from Trade Shoes to Human Resources both domestically and internationally.”

–Spectra/Physics, from Testimonials page of

5.  Those fairly wacky promotional posters Silicon Maps promote a region and erase its deep inequalities, and indeed the absence of a community in a region where corporate practices obscure its won community:  if the map compiles constitute social registries of the region, as a conceit of marketing which would continue to cultivate prospective clients–“Sponsors: Put Your Company on The Map!™”–while orienting viewers to the industrial and corporate centers often hard to see from the road, they perpetuate an insider’s view of its landscape.  The poster map seems a surrogate for revealing the growing valuation of their own industries.  But as any poster intends to paper over yesterday’s news by today’s actuality, these recurrent annual publications paper over the business dynamics they herald, speaking less to outsiders or visitors than to those already initiated and in the know.  The poster map provides a public profile of a company, and something of a  sense that it has, indeed, arrived, even as the expansion of “the industry” alters the environment in fundamental ways that are more rarely mapped than the story of its economic success.  The maps suggest a sort of board game where visitors can enter, and an imaginarily isolated space that they can explore.

The poster-maps merit scrutiny for how they confront the amorphous constitution of Silicon Valley over time, and the shifting cast of characters it involves.


880 and 101Silicon Maps, 1991 (detail)


The annually produced colorful pictorial maps, one reproduced in the header to this post, records the corporate swarming of Silicon Valley as well as a sort of social register of the region, as much as a map with directionality that might help evidence a sense of itself as a physical space.  While the map is an advertisement that is self-made, and Desrosiers solicits local corporations to place themselves on its twisting freeways, the result nicely evokes something like a “non-place”–a site of the transit of products, technology, and funds, served by winding roads, freeways and expressways, familiar to the insider, which one enters on the 101, along its low-density buildings and placards.  The sequence of promotional maps, once assembled collectively, suggest the expansion of Silicon Valley as a site of entrepreneurial investment that resists easy interpretation.

The vanity maps of local corporate clusterings have more than totemic value:  for they figuratively document the novel semantics of the ever-changing, mutable and actually overlapping spaces of Silicon Valley as a sort of fertility cult whose corporate residents heralds themselves as the site of the future, and the recession of the landscape of its past.  If “Silicon Valley” became a place-name as a form of branding, its currency and solidity concealed its own continual reframing and negotiation as a site of corporate logos of varied online platforms, rather than as a specific place, but to manufacture a sense of place of particular attraction.  The region emerged as a site funded by government subsidies, to be sure, before emerging as a hotbed of start-ups, but was able to naturalize its own ongoing fertility in ways that concealed the complete transformation of its landscape.  Virtually an integrated circuit of its own, the landscape, once naturalized as a center of technological commerce and clean industry, replaced the landscape of orchards that once defined the bucolic nature of the Santa Clara Valley or Valley of Heart’s Delight.

For Silicon Maps marked metaphorical toponym naturalized a landscape of regeneration as a landscape of innovation and perpetuation revaluation in its annually generated maps, even as the site declined as the manufacturing industry for electronics that it once was:  what was once a site for producing semiconductors or transistors became one of ongoing innovation in the tech industry and providers of internet platforms and exchange, concealing the transactions and flows of investment that brought it to life, and presenting the many forces it brings into reaction with one another in a global economy with the image of a static location–akin to the landscape of the Santa Clara Valley that it has replaced, and gives an apparent materiality and location to a site which is both difficult to map and based on a world-wide circulation of goods.  The maps suggest how Silicon Valley might be mapped both as a conceptual space and against its actual configuration, if only so that we can better gauge the distance between the two, and to consider the unique relation of its “place” as a corporate network, rather than a community.  The sense of swarming of the Valley that Desrosiers has continued to map from 1989 so compellingly through the present offers a mirror of the swarming of Silicon Valley far beyond the eighty chip manufacturers that spread along highways from Palo Alto to San Jose, boosted by an availability of cheap (most often immigrant) labor, as had worked its earlier orchards of plums.  Even as the actual farmers left the Valley, and the green space far receded, with the swarming of industrial campuses and, soon, islands of corporate minicities on the peninsula, the density of Silicon Valley is difficult to chart, because it seems so spread out.  The insularity of the community is as distinct as its much-vaunted open-ness and the premium it placed on a devotion to freedom, equality, and rational thought.

The swarming of Silicon Valley they show is based on a long-standing vangelism of tech, however, as much as for folks in search of work:  if not an organized religion in any way, the theology of technology has define logic of the swarming of the Valley–and the mutual recognition of its members–in ways that made Silicon Valley a community of believers hard to map from the outside; it was always a center of investment whose benefits, not so paradoxically, rarely reached most of its residents from who they lay far out of reach.  The region providing platforms to the world is not organized as a clear workspace or a set of clear property lines, but as corporate entities and logos, and where the bulk of the wealth produced has proved increasingly elusive for many of its residents, and indeed leads many of its residents to leave.  Even while the apparent mobility of tech has grown, the resilience of the name on which sales force teams had hit–“Silicon Valley”–has stuck as a space with connotations of continued fertility, lent coherence to its components even across a dot-com bust-and-crash:  metaphorically and conceptually, as a distinct ecosystem whose economy remained more resilient than that of the nation. “Silicon Valley” retains a privileged place in our mental imaginary–both as a desired destination and a site of innovation aimed to be recreated elsewhere–despite the challenges in defining it as a space that exists materially or cartographically.  “How was I to know,” Hoefler wrote in 1981, “that the term would quickly be adopted industry-wide, and finally become generic worldwide?”  If January 11, 2015 marks the forty-fourth anniversary of the first naming of the region in print, the transformation of the considerable work done by its naming to suggest the emergence of the semiconductor industry in the South Bay extends far beyond the fairly tongue-in-cheek popularization of the term by supernewspaperman Don Hoefler, who first used it for a column in Electronic News, adapting the term he overheard from folks in marketing semiconductors to create a column that presented the “insider story” of the industry in ways that would generate its own cartographical legacy as a region that could, indeed, be mapped.




The very insider nature of the region was taken by Mike Judge in the HBO series “Silicon Valley” as a basis for its narrative.  The term has undoubtedly provided a huge source of its attraction and appeal–and the lure of its green hills that defined it as a destination and a site deserving of investors’ attention that led it to be so prominently foregrounded on their maps–so much so that rather than directly puncture or satire the hype of start-up culture and the values of techies or entrepreneurs, the show seems more of a situation comedy that is sprinkled with tech jargon and adult humor, which admires a shrine of tech culture from afar.  For Silicon Valley was constantly rewriting its own present, and the notion of mapping what was a center of hi-tech with the notions of natural fertility had a considerable cognitive appeal.  Innovation was always inscribed on its landscape.  As early as 1982, Moira Johnston observed that even if “Silicon Valley appears on no map, this former California prune patch is [now] the heartland of an electronics revolution that may prove as far-reaching as the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century” and “cutting edge technology stumbling over itself its competitive a rush to the marketplace.”  The region quickly captured one-fifth of the global market for silicon chips, then valued at over 15 billion, creating ties to a marketplace even as microprocessors manufacturing has receded into its long-distant past, and enjoyed an amazing resilience as a center of investment, entrepreneurial capitalism and redefinition of new online providers of web-based services.

The conceptual work of remapping the industry that “Silicon Valley” provided helped in  the material construction of the region, giving its material creation and consequences an air of stability, and even inevitability.  Although the chip fabrication factories that used to dot a zone once manufacturing integrated circuits and semiconductors are shuttered, and in the corporations in Silicon Valley increasing attention is gained by “napkin” products of marketing ingenuity, the growth of the compressive capacities of silicon chips remain emblematic of a Valley that continues to warp our sense of space, and be talismanic for the Next Big Thing.  Even as silicon wafers have come to take the form of chiplets more easily printed than etched, their use as microprocessors or repositories of memory will continue to expand online platforms, driven by the doubling every two years of the transistors able to be etched onto a silicon chip.


Silicon Valley 1991Silicon Maps (1991)


Attempts to embody its corporate clustering as a verdant bucolic space is evident in the popular maps that defined the region from 1989–the other year of its coming of age.  Desrosiers’ maps were explicitly crafted annually for explicitly promotional ends, but their continuous appearance for almost twenty years register how Silicon Valley entailed a conscious re-writing of a performative relation to space, erasing the bucolic scenery that once characterized the Santa Clara Valley first with manufacturing industries that concealed the waste they generated, and then with a constellation of corporations among which the freeways–so integral to its creation–almost disappeared, and toponymy almost vanishes within a network of corporate logos that once recalled business cards in a verdant landscape.  Silicon Valley’s predominant industry required no fixed or discrete location, and was situated behind computer terminals, but Desrosiers mapped a sun-drenched space in which brands figuratively blossom, selling its image of fertility, from the year of the Loma Prieta earthquake, as a microcosm of commerce in California’s coast, his maps reveal more about its performative relation to space than the many data visualizations of its productivity or the investments it has attracted, and provide a fitting entrée into an exploration of how Silicon Valley has created a unique relation to space.

For most conspicuous in the mapping of the region over all of these years is the conspicuous absence of public space.  The Silicon Valley mapped for the corporations who dwell there compete with each other, demanding some loyalty and collective hiving off in corporate identities, but are content to set new levels of mixing individual identity and a corporate setting and space, and even adopt what seems a distinctly insular economic climate and mode of communications, and its own adoption of new models of intellectual property that in ways are still closely linked to the silicon chip–years after the factories for producing chips have receded into the background of its corporate culture.


Map Silicon Valley


This poster map promises make sense of the constitution of a corporate place in Silicon Valley, as much as the relations between people and objects, or of its actual inhabitants.  For Silicon Valley is indeed defined not less by its inhabitants than the corporations based there, from those who responded to invitations from Stanford University to settle in lots sold to attract business to the region to the start ups who congregate in its space.  The result created a space through which investors, programmers, start-ups and coders circled each other in ways that would forever alter the lay of the land.

It’s hard to know if there is any clear “outside” Silicon Valley, whose culture permeates the region.  Mike Judge’s satire of the culture of programmers, engineers, eccentric venture capitalists, and excess, where money wildly circulates, appeals as an insider story of how Silicon Valley became far more than a fixed geographical place for reasons and escaped categories:  bound by the paved paths of route 101 and the 280,  and now to 680 or 880 and beyond the 101, and viewed in motion, one negotiates the Valley as a sprawling corporate space straddling municipalities, stretching from San Jose, Santa Clara, and Mountain View to Palo Alto and Foster City or beyond:  the region is an interlocking swath of the Bay Area that call attention to themselves, more than a freeway exit, but as  a space of transit, through which course large sums of capital as well as creativity–although the focus on the Valley as a source of the production of value has often obscured its own unique sense of space or the space it creates.  Silicon Valley is no longer distinguished as one site of entrepreneurial investment, to be sure, but an entire region that has attracted an incredibly significant investment across a growing geographical expanse.



sf_-bay_dollars_150_500pxMartin Prosperity Institute


The swarming of investment is somewhat decentralized and widespread.  Yet Silicon Valley remains, in a geographic imaginary, a place which advertises where one has arrived–and must pay attention–but exists as only a “place” that one can arrive if one has an insider’s map.  Silicon Valley is viewed differently from within or without its corporate spaces, and extremely hard to map for the uninitiated.  The actual elusiveness of Silicon Valley rests in being bound by freeway mobility and displacement, as one-time relatively cheap land was converted into corporate campuses, and at the same time being an experience–a fact which Judge captures so perfectly–that is only really able to be perceived by the few who worked there.




The special place of the region nation-side is more evident in a mapping of venture capital investment across the nation:



sf_-bay_dollars_150_500pxMartin Prosperity Institute


For despite sustained attention to the uniqueness of Silicon Valley’s economy, Silicon Valley is emblematic of a shift in our sense of space and its inhabitation:  its growth might be mapped as a relation between firms of electronics and shrinking wilderness formerly characteristic of the region, and, as much as a new culture of work, maps a new reaction between work and space in an area whose former orchards are now largely paved.


electronics:wildernessGoogle Maps


As much as the rationality of economic models, the collective action of swarming may provide a helpful model to understand and unpack the historical growth of the Valley’s sustained economic productivity, quite unlike the genealogies of corporations, or IPO’s backed by Google Ventures or other venture capitalists that have been created to describe its generations of commercial growth.  For swarming conveys how the expansion of the Valley, or with a fixed center, has spread and grown by quite unique criteria that don’t seem to abide by the rationalist principles of most all programmers or CEOs.

Silicon Valley has been long mythologized as an anti-industrial space, whose unique workspace was defined by synergy and trumpeting itself as a flex space at the forefront of a tech revolution, but the changing relation to space of the region was not fully understood.  The physical space of Silicon Valley lacks a center, physical footprint, or in relation to an urban economic environment–even though it seems to stand at the center of the world.  Silicon Valley seems defined by an ongoing swarming to Silicon Valley, despite venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s 2012 prediction that, as work moves to the cloud, “software is eating the world” erasing the distinctions between locations.  The corporate preeminence that the Valley endures–a preeminence reflected in the regions’ hyper-inflated real estate prices, the daily swarming of commuters who can’t afford to live nearby, the swarming to industrial cities, the swarming of spin-offs, or of the intensity of investment that distinguishes the region outside of the way we designate place or partition space, and has an at least two-fold existence for those who participate in its economy and those who view the economy from afar.  Even as crowd-sourcing has become not only one of the new mantras of the internet, but Silicon Valley a source that has expressed increased confidence in crowds as sources of knowledge-production and distributed problem-solving, the continuation of this concentration, despite the consequences and irrationality of such a swarming of Silicon Valley, are perhaps poorly understood.


6.  The contradictory nature of Silicon Valley is illustrated in its radical transformation of itself as a place.  The environment of the Valley is often, to be sure, obscured by its powerful myths.  In fact, the multiple spaces of Silicon Valley–manicured green spaces of corporate parks; freeways; open office spaces; self-contained islands; sites of toxic waste; homeless encampments; sites of toxic waste; wilderness–coexist without the harmony that is imagined in the bucolic visions of the Valley that this header describes.  The contradictions between these spaces are only hinted at in the visions of the valley we get from Google Maps or what seems the hazily populated region in Earth View.


Aerial Silicon Valley view


If we can see that an increasing expanse of Silicon Valley is now paved over–the disappearance of greenspace in Silicon Valley and much of the peninsula is legendary–what spotty areas of greenspace remains seems hemmed in, despite increasing calls for coordinated sustained development of the region, either built on or paved with asphalt or concrete or threatened to disappear, as less and less of the region is covered by trees–and seems to have grown as the Valley that once existed was replaced by buildings, freeways, pavement and parking lots.  As if in inverse relation to the shrinking of global space online, the expansion of the Valley as a site of work and investment has continued to warp the lived geography of the west coast and its environment in somewhat startling ways, only recently appreciated as we distance ourselves from the mythos of the region’s talismanic synergy.




In a world where the web flattens production and consumption, Silicon Valley has remained a spike for entrepreneurial investment.  But it remains a liminal space, outside urban environments, or even a “rim city.”  Silicon Valley is not only a visibly heterogenous space, but one challenges criteria of geographical meaning in ways that make it all the more difficult to map or chart:  it juxtaposes multiple sites, themselves often incompatible with one another, in a single site, each linked to different senses of space and time.

The coherence of the conceptual pace of Silicon Valley is notoriously difficult to map both because it changed so quickly, and because so little of its true construction or inner mechanisms seem evident in a simple land-map or the “spatial configuration” of such a unique post-industrial space, especially one that looms so large in a spatial imaginary.  For it abandons the conventional categories by which geographical space is understood of proximity and scale, and even metageographical concepts of rim cities or corporate suburbia; its economy suggests a megacity with unique ties to a global economy.  Silicon Valley long ago abandoned property lines of the orchards that once defined the Valley of Heart’s Delight, where migrant workers supplied the world with what seemed an endless supply of dried apricots, cherries, and prunes.  Rather than a center of agriculture or yearly crops, the region has been in large part paved over.  In fact, just under 60% of the region is paved, and only 15% covered with trees, radically altering its landscape from the past.


paved lands silicon ValleySan Jose Mercury News 


“Swarming” captures an instinctual collective pattern, as much as a rational plan, as a figure of speech.  The multiplication of corporations on the ground around the Bay Area often imagined as geneology proving too complicated and brachiated to map by the 1990s, the multiplication of corporate presences throughout the Bay Area demands to be examined as a new relation to space.  “Swarming” implies an animal-like hearding and multiplication removed from the precepts of rationality that are claimed to underlie Silicon Valley, and an unconscious collective activity.   Silicon Valley seems only bound over the longue durée by freeway mobility and displacement, as one-time relatively cheap land was converted into corporate campuses, and at the same time being an experience–a fact which Mike Judge captures so perfectly–that is only really able to be perceived by the few who worked there.   But the image of Silicon Valley popularly perpetuated by its local cartographer and chronicler, Silicon Maps, unconsciously provides a guide by which corporations could see how they occupied its space, literalizing the transformation of metonymy into toponymy in the clever expression of compression dreamed up by sales force reps and marketers as a catchy descriptor transferring connotations of agricultural abundance to the electronics business that has long stuck.  The same marketers could surely not imagine the remaking of its local landscape that play on the horizon, or the preeminence of the region during the spatial shrinkage the internet facilitates.  But the name not only stuck, but became a toponym and freeway exit, even if it lacked a center or enjoyed a clear location.  Its optimistic transference of connotations of perpetual prosperity to tech resonated with the sunny evangelism of a unique marketplace:  and the name stuck as investing coherence in a region of transit, across a dot-com bust-and-crash, as defining a metaphorically distinct ecosystem whose economy seems more resilient than the nation’s economy as a whole.

The swarming of Silicon Valley depicted above followed the region’s transformation into a manufacturing center, but pre-dates the wireless mesh that led it to reborn as an archipelago of the internet-linked.  The commercial map united a region not bound by land-surveys or legal limits, it might remain best mapped reflexively to foreground its myth of spontaneously regenerating prosperity as the displaced orchards of yore.  For time, as well as space, are difficult to quantify or measure in “Silicon Valley” which has been far more than a fixed geographical place from the start–it almost had no bounds, as a site which was not really defined by work, but by the flow of workers, coders, programmers, circuits, chips, and platforms, distinguished by a seemingly endless supply of venture capital and a rash of rising valuations by the next century.  If these communities overlapped in different ways in the Valley, the collective synergy so often championed distinguished the region in ways that demanded to be visualized, but which maps fail to comprehend adequately.  Desrosier’s perpetually sunny land lends actual coherence to a now not so anomalous intersection of freeways, obscuring the contradictions of a clustering of big tech corporations by situating them in a smoke-free bucolic setting.  The maps sorts out not only the big players, but orients one’s experience of the region obscured by the confusion of driving across the region on the crowded 880, 237 or 101 which has few prominent landmarks–save Great America or Fry’s Electronics–along a maze, glimpsing billboards, logos, or now, the enclosed communities of those who have indeed arrived.


mazeMichael Desrosiers, Silicon Maps (1991)


The burgeoning logos that crowd the surface of the pro-commerce map does some serious cognitive work by effectively reifying Silicon Valley as a place, branding it as something considerably more for insiders and outsiders alike:  a microcosm of the world of hi tech that constituted itself as something of a new frontier and a new space of work, tied to the idealism of the nineteen-seventies but closely tied to a new world of global finance, but one completely removed from the familiar office space or indeed patterns of work:  it is the vision of the new industry that defined the Valley–a vision of the multiplication of individual makers of chip-related industries, soon expanded by the arrival of global electronics firms, and in fact led it to win its very own patent office “to speed up the patent process and help American businesses grow, innovate, create jobs and compete globally” in 2012 to confirm its status as a “number one destination for innovation capital.”





 “‘We own the patent for that particular technology.  Did you know that?'”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle

7.  Who was the new patent office really for?  We have extensive data and metrics about economic performance and entertain theories for the growth of a trading zone between coders, and capital.  But mapping the mental construct of Silicon Valley–charting the proliferation of energy in the maps by which the Valley viewed itself as a place–remains a challenging to unpack, so distant is it from the environment or ecology of Silicon Valley on the ground.  This is partly due to the difficulties of defining Silicon Valley as a place with apparent bounds, the difficulty of pinning down the very centrality of a site through which have moved circuits, code, products and venture capital, and which now stands as a center of platforms to a World Wide Web, instead of  manufacturing, and to take stock of its resilience as a site of investment over time.  For Silicon Valley seems a center that we can’t map so easily as a site of work, one that has long been a notable spike of the global economy, where the swarming of workers and the place it has assumed in our collective mental imagination as leading to the future stand at odds with broader environmental change across its growing expanse.

Mike Judge’s satirical account of the emergence in the eighties of a view of the Valley is perhaps a history of the moment it became unreal.  The HBO comedy has certainly gained huge popularity as a narrative of the historical moment when the Valley appeared on the map as a unique space.  “Silicon Valley” depicts the interaction of entrepreneurs, programmers and coders on which feel we somehow have a purchase, inviting us to be a fly on the wall overhearing interactions in an “absurd time in history where people who are 24 are suddenly worth $10 billion in a year and a half.”  Although Silicon Valley’s continued vitality as a site of startups may be currently questioned, as the mobility of tech has grown worldwide, “Silicon Valley” retains a distinctly privileged place and position in our mental imaginary as a conceptual space–both as a destination and a network of innovation aimed to be recreated elsewhere–the challenges in mapping Silicon Valley with fixed bounds, a center, or indeed as a space provide a healthy way to excavate the contradictions and constellation of meanings that Silicon Valley has aquired.  For in our mapping of the economic success of Silicon Valley in our imaginations, we have, in a large sense, papered over and homogenized the huge differences of wages, ethnicity, and lifestyle in the porous region.  For, if not the Wild West, it has sustained itself on a frontier-space, bridging spaces more than defining them.

One powerful account of the birth of this geography can be traced to ta time when funding from the US Department of Defense turned to Stanford University, and began luring tech projects with leases on local lands, both for military and civilian ends, the swarming of the Valley has redefined its heterotypic space in ways that were unforeseen before.  Despite the focus of scrutiny on corporate actors at the cutting edge of the next big thing–from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, with help from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency–as much as its economy was shaped by corporate growth, Silicon Valley was remade as a site of technology that erased its own past, and whose composition is hard to read.  The myth of the verdant landscape stuck as a topos of rebirth, but also a bizarre combination of nature and culture that pointed the way forward, concealing the fractures that lay beneath the glistening sheen of the pro-corporate maps that Desrosiers continued to produce, and the difficulty of knowing what, exactly, the politics or the character of this corporate space was in American culture.  If the internet was supposed to be universally accessible, and independent of location, the corporate space of Silicon Valley that had benefitted from available funding for research and start-ups, and benefitted from a mobility and collective migration of talent among its corporations and the greater acceptability of hackers among its milieux–as well as the relative remove of the Valley from larger market forces.  If continued speculation has been directed to locating the next center of tech on a world map, the relation between local and global crucially allowed money, capital, and workers to flow through Silicon Valley as a conduit, and indeed the constitution of a rich market for programming and engineering on the ground.

The region’s origins at the center of web-based computing might be traced as an intellectual genealogy of hypertext in the Stanford Research Institute and adoption of Vannevar Bush’s image of a systematic ordering of information by associations–links–rather than ranking or indexing, navigated by a keyboard, as one lineage of the region, the swarming of Silicon Valley demands to be spatially and conceptually mapped, to excavate its symbolic status as a location, reborn most recently as the site for a historical drama on HBO–much as its increasing alignment of the programmer with a male culture of self-sufficiency that naturalized its own male identity–and intense dueling of programmers’, coders’, and entrepreneurs’ free-market ethos–despite the quite complex social composition revealed in the demographer Dustin Cable’s “Racial Dot Map” of the region’s relative social segregation.  The segregation perhaps tends to disappear as the population shifts on freeways, but exists in the image Wired celebrated as “the best map of America’s racial segregation,” where Asian-Americans are noted by red dots, Latinos by orange dots, whites by blue dots and blacks by green:  the map of 308 million dots, each signifying an individual, reveals clear “ethnic” enclaves.


cableDustin Cable/Screenshot


A great part of the Silicon Valley’s continued symbolic unity lay it is status as s a center for entrepreneurial activity–and intense investment local corporations–create a unique landscape, not able to be reduced to the political, not easily able to be easily imitated in other regions, however inevitable is the attempt to imitate and emulate, i.  Lest branding seem the sole function of the maps that bound the region’s apparent shapelessness, it os important to note the difficulty with which regions inherit its sheen–for as “Silicon Valley” is reified and its branding imitated briefly if spectacularly produced Silicon Alley in Manhattan, Silicon Hills outside Austin, Silicon Allée in Berlin, Silicon Docks in Dublin“Silicon Roundabout” in London, Silicon North in Ottawa, or, back in the US, Silicon Prairie or the Silicon Valleys of the South–as if each is competing for a symbolic marker having arrived at a similar model of economic investment, the distance at which each lies from a similar concentration of start-ups or investors is evident in metrics devised by Jorge Guzman and Scott Stern weight regions to measure the quality of entrepreneurial activity from 2001-2011.

60988d4adCity Lab-Atlantic


For this hyperactive space of reinvestment has increasingly directed to a global economy in ways whose dynamics are hard to recapture–and that leads visitors to many of these regions from California to wonder at the different lifestyles, less free-flowing rivers of money and conspicuous expenditures they find overseas, where start-ups just don’t live in the same way.  These differences are not treated in this post, which has ballooned enough, but seeks to move between branding, economic charts, and data visualizations to better map the space and region Silicon Valley not only as an economy, but as a space.  The changing space of the Valley, in other words, seems central to an understanding of its expansion not as a work space, but a space whose ethos or social space of actors has encouraged so much finance to still flow.  The flow of inordinate capital to these new spaces have much to do with the rise of homelessness in San Jose and across Silicon Valley, to be discussed later, given the near-impossibility of sustaining a residence in a space that is increasingly valuable as a place for hanging one’s shingle and displaying one’s business card on a map.

The powerful remapping of the Valley in these poster maps that Desrosiers produced for a large corporate clientele represent, more than anything, the interest in sustaining an imaginary view of the Valley as a “green” space, and as a bucolic land of plenty, in an increasingly impoverished nation.  The assiduous cultivation of this image of fertility conceals the obliteration of the landscape’s former fertility that had so long defined the region, but made it into a new land of national plenty.


“The rest of America…seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought.”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle

8.  Despite the recent arrival of “Silicon Valley” on California maps, the mapping and remapping of the Valley’s corporate clusters made sense of its intersecting multiple economies, to make the illusion of the Valley present to viewers as a place, during the 1990s.  The comfortable jostling between competing corporate entities, many of whom exchanged ideas, products, or employees, was shown as a single surface of production–albeit one that seemed pollution and industry-free, in ways seems a careful smoothing over its curious heterotopia–even as the former Valley of Heart’s Desire began to disappear.  If all maps share encomiastic functions to some degree, these images chart the emergence of an extended archipelago of the internet-linked, not bound by lines determined by land-surveys or maps, to show the triumphal promise of its economy.  The map showcases a myth of self-generated corporate prosperity, at the same time as the increasing corporate swarming of the region by consumer-driven commercial consumer firms in the Valley that incrasingly changed its material map of employment and work from a purveyor of chips.


Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 8.45.10 PM“Silicon Valley,” Michael Desrosiers (1990)


The verdant bucolic space of the sort portrayed in maps of Michael Desrosiers from 1989, suggest its openness as a continued site for speculation even as they concealed the pronounced lack of transparency in remaking of its landscape.  The image of abundance is naturalized in the map:  there is hardly room that seems to remain in this “map” of space crisscrossed by freeways; the profusion of fabled corporate logos of brands as Atari, IBM, Memorex, Olivetti, InfoWorld, NEC, KLA, Intel, beside Fry’s Electronics and a young Apple dot the greenery of the South Bay.  Desrosiers’ Silicon Valley would only spread north to San Francisco over a decade later, in 2001: until then, a secluded verdant paradise holds a proliferation of brands are nested in a landscape with which they have little traffic in an improbable pastoral metaphor, beside grey highways on which snake cars, buses, and perhaps a municipal garbage truck that both sanitizes and barely conceals the levels of waste the region has long created.  The imagined space of Silicon Valley, however, has always trumped the real concrete sprawl, and the maps of Silicon Maps–previously “City Maps”–provided the mirror to the corporations that they have pretty continuously wanted to see, they merit examination as being without serious impact on its surroundings.

The “map” of the Valley whose new name Desrosiers popularized on the business calendar was a mirror of Silicon Valley. It inscribed the name of each company he located on his pictorial map who would pay–adding satellites and a zeppelin in 1991–and reflects the changing cast of characters it invested with apparent harmony, which cast the region’s abundance as its own brand through the conflation of a proliferation of business cards that the region generates with the land’s natural fertility.  An early prototype of this commercial map, which invited local companies to place themselves on this new space by attaching their business card within its map both exploited and famously advertised the fertility of Silicon Valley.


Silicon Valley 1991Silicon Maps, 1991


To be sure, the 1991 landscape was about branding as much as mapping, but demands some symbolic analysis.  Desrosiers revealed he Valley as an improvised congeries of spaces–a hyperbolic heterotopia–where the density of manufacturing industry had replaced existing models of work and generation of wealth had magically become clean.  Crammed side by side one another in a green expanse that somehow remains park-like and inviting–and worth ballooning above–workspaces bloomed in ways tied, implicitly, to a global economy, but was depicted as an alternate workspace that echoed a classical bucolic scene, and plastered over its competitiveness or martial metaphors by presenting this workspace as something of a “playspace” where competition was far more intense–and mortal–than the board-game like scenario of cheery colors would portend.

The pastoral expanse of Silicon Valley can be scanned as a region of fertile abundance from the first very map Desrosiers made–which displayed a corporate cornucopia as an always green, sun-drenched landscape, in what might be the precursor to the current perpetually green landscapes in Google Maps.  The cartographical rhetoric of abundance is about product placement, as much as the determination of geographic location, but the promise to orient viewers to the Valley by an imagined prospective view of the South Bay which almost seems its own island paradise, above which sail two smiling white balloonists, welcomes one to something of a self-declared topic corporate mecca by showing the most prominent big players circa 1990 to tell each they had arrived–and offered a bright invitation to find a place in its terrain.  Of course, the map was indeed more board-game than actual terrain:  it invites people to Silicon Valley’s new image of settling space more than orient them to its corporate plenty.  How can the congregation and spawning of so many software and electronics industry–yet to be called “information”–be understood than by swarming, as the Valley seems something like a feeding ground and center of spin offs whose own genealogy is difficult to track?

The mechanics of such swarming is less due to immigrant laborers, but to map some of the reasons where the figure of swarming proceeds–both in terms of the swarming of the landscape with corporate entities whose growth depends on chips’ availability, the swarming of capital that congregates in the region, obliterating the landscape once there, to the swarming of commuters who have longed stream to the region from cheaper residential areas on its margins, a swarming so prominent a factor of the multi-lane highways that in the most pedestrian sense link Silicon Valley to the world to have become a defining element of its current landscape.  While swarming was not Desrosiers intention, it seems an apt paradox to see the seat of this new information industry as best mapped by a sort of herd behavior whose design is not clearly rational.  If its roots seem to lie in the plummeting of the prices of circuitry and semi-conductors, the now-mythical “separate culture” that bloomed in Silicon Valley  from Intel to Apple to Google, the post-1960s culture, replacing that of Fairchild Semi-Conductors, rested on a link between “computer” with “personal” that arose in the early 1980s, and quickly encouraged the near evangelism of an affective tie between man and machine.


Steve Jobs RidesNational Geographic (1982)


For these maps embody and manufacture the seamless unity of the divided region of Silicon Valley as if it were a coherent place, by doing the sort of job maps were long employed to do.  While they vaunt the micro-community that Silicon Valley as a center of manufacturing and programming that made it one of the sole sunny spots in the United States, were they also conscious of the erasure they perform of its earlier sense of place as the Valley of Heart’s Delight, content to map the desire for increasingly powerful circuitry and “user-friendly” personal computers?



“‘We value your work-life balance, you know, the calibration between your online life here at the company and outside it.  I hope that’s clear.  Is it?”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle


9.  Were such early mappers of the profusion of corporate spaces across the Santa Clara Valley tacitly conscious of the displacement of the once-fertile agrarian community formerly known as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” whose bucolic orchards of peaches, plums, and cherries were replaced by a scattering of electronics firms based in semiconductors and silicon chips?  Was the definition of a new microcosm of fertility a name that concealed an undeniable if implicit recognition of the erasure of what once was, and a process of forgetting by what it had been replaced?


Nicolas_Poussin_052Nicolas Poussin, “Et in Arcadia Ego” (1637-8)/Musée du Louvre


Et in Arcadio Ego?  The studious absorption of reading the location of Tech companies across the Valley finds its counterpart, perhaps, in the bucolic space where stand Arcadian shepherds, bent over the sepulchral monument that they find in their midst, perhaps like programmers trying to read code, script and algorithms of the past, or venture capitalists trying to find the Next Big Thing.  The shepherds’ engagement leads them to realize the civilization that once was there, and the fated disappearance of their paradise.  They are not in the Desrosiers’ maps.  But the swarming of Silicon Valley seems almost premised on the erasure and displacement of what once was there:  if we live in a space habituated to the writing over of landscapes, Silicon Valley was one of the first, where we’ll be long reading the traces of its past occupation.

Few signs of the past of the Valley are present in the commercial maps of Silicon Valley.  When Desrosiers cleverly mapped the region of just four years later as an expanding region, it had expanded considerably, but the map was hardly realistic:  the Bay Bridge looms, as greenery recedes into a somewhat misty rainbow-hued ground, Intel appears beside a growing Apple campus, and new firms like Siliconix, Hyundai, Semivac, Informix and CompUSA dot what seems a board game more than terrain, beckoning one to enter the landscape of gambling on the vision of the future it proposed.  The instability of such a tie-dyed terrain speaks to the post-1970s origins of the coders, geeks, and engineers.  If the map also acknowledges a mellow past of Silicon Valley, the peopling of the landscape presents it as a sort of fold into which a tight community of insiders is nested–no streets are labeled, or toponymy noted, save corporations who could buy a spot in the new landscape featured in the calendar, which all but obliterates the one-time fertility of the land, replacing it with a landscape of business cards so often carried by those who navigated its highways.



Silicon Maps (1994)


The map’s fecundity imitates the spinning off of corporations by former workers who attract new backers that characterized the Valley’s actual economic growth from Los Gatos to Concord and Mill Valley.  Ss companies have continued to be spun out from companies–if Fairchild Semiconductors’ former employees generated at least a hundred; who knows how many were spawned by others–corporations replace place-names, as the landscape conflated with the continued circulation of business cards, as the spinning off of companies obscure geography, and corporate cleavages led to a swarming of a region beyond all expectations of its earlier inhabitants, but in ways that reflect the optimism for universal free-market competition.


siliconvalleySilicon Maps (2013)


How, ask promoters of this popular piece of office decoration, do I get copies of the map/calendar or put my company on the map?  The deep desire to “put oneself on the map” of the region reflects the corporate swarming of Silicon Valley–driven by the arrival of workers, capital, and intellectual properties to the region in ways that fed an anxiety of how to visualize how one’s company had arrived in a landscape where swarming was early on naturalized in a landscape of apparent abundance.  Facilitated by networking, the ongoing image of a landscape of innovation and investment perpetuate a mythos of perpetual renewal as if a natural environment or ecology, blending nature with culture, as if reasons could be found for its emergent structures in a landscape of innovative renewal, even as it had begun to disappear conclusively as a place.

The apparent openness of Silicon Valley’s environment is often attributed to its much-vaunted open informal organizational style, informal communities that generate innovative thought, or networks among entrepreneurs able to detect and sniff out the valuations of new platforms and opportunities for economic growth.  But these over-rehearsed explanations of the region’s abundance tend to naturalizing of a landscape of continued fertility in ways that create a “place” or space in a metaphorical sense, as if to fabricate a notional creation even as its coherence is in fact concealed and never so clearly perceivable for its inhabitants–save perhaps as an obliteration of its perpetually receding agricultural past.


Santa Clara techsprawl 1982National Geographic (1986)


So unaesthetic is its design that it is doubtful that Silicon Valley will ever find its own Trevor Paglen.

Rather than developing as a planned or gated community, Silicon Valley developed as a sort of language game that emerged around player–and grew as a space of gaming, both of placing bets on corporations, and investing money in startups, which on its own had no fixed bounds and no limits or center, but lay in the overlap of multiple communities of coders, programmers, and manufacturing workers that exploited the availability of electronic circuitry and silicon chips.  The Valley seems a classic heterotopia of the confusion of spaces of investment, coding, and corporate campuses, whose focus is directed to the flow of information on computer screens:  its metaphorical mapping embodies what emerged as an archipelago of the internet-linked, not bound by lines determined by land-surveys or maps, but best mapped reflexively to foreground its myth of self-generated corporate prosperity.  Such promotional serially produced sequence of annual vanity maps, designed as individualized posters and desk calendars, record the record job growth by “biz listings” in ways that don’t pause to conceal the ever-present engines of is formation.

But they foreground the difficult-to-pinpoint rationale for it’s enduring economic prosperity.  All maps mediate an individual perspective and the spatial distribution of a world-view, but such pro-commerce pictorial map of Silicon Valley relishes the worldliness of the insider’s perspective.  The iconography of the pictorial map of the Valley inscribes and recapitulates a myth of the genius loci, since so often recycled in depicting a salubrious locus amoenus for generating unending venture capital, without offering space to interrogate the unique rationale for its corporate clustering in a bucolic setting, or to recognize its cascading effects on the region.  But the map foregrounds the difficult-to-pinpoint rationale for its enduring economic prosperity.  For the ever-absent contours or centers of Silicon Valley are problematic to map or imagine as a fixed terrain, rather than as a vast archipelago of corporate settings whose members drink from a common, secret source, or concealed groundwater aquifers and rivers that have replaced the old.


1o.  The mapping of the region expresses the difficulties in coming to terms with the historical emergence of the region as such a prominent center of capital, as much as the data that might be measured of its exponential economic productivity and growth, which somehow masked its tacit connection to a globalized economy.  Rather than being closely tied to a city, Silicon Valley has emerged outside of crowded spaces, where it could attract labor to the region–or draw from nearby cities from San Francisco to San Jose to Santa Cruz–without   ever being a city itself.  And even though there were early plans to use public transit to link San Jose to Oakland in the early part of the century, the lack of a center and disaggregation of Silicon Valley was always part of its appeal, if not its attraction, as a region that could attract folks from around the country, and was capacious in its ability to absorb–if in recent years also sent folks to the new “Silicon Valleys” in the US.

Yet despite hopes to create public transit lines since the start of the century, the spread out nature of the Valley have never been built–even if it has very long been projected.  While this presses the nature of our public transit, is it really that hard to serve Silicon Valley directly–a project that has been in the works, it seems, long before tech settled the area?


big bart copy


New Lines to San Jose


The motion through Silicon Valley’s workspaces–site of the international traffic of products, capital, investment, and workers–resists conventional mapping of its workplace, environment, or investment.

The coherence of the Valley can be less defined in the political terms that the rest of the country might recognize, the opposition between different political parties, less clearly defines its relationship to the nation than its relation to tech.  Santa Clara County–a relatively wealthy county by median income, in which the majority is non-white–is difficult to define as a political environment.  The region has tended to vote increasingly Democratic in recent elections, no doubt increasing ties of Democratic presidents to the region, despite a deep-seated passion of Silicon Valley for free markets, verging on the neo-Liberal, but corporations like Apple and Google became overwhelmingly supportive of Democratic candidates in the late 1980s in ways that reflected their deepest faith in IT as a progressive (if not liberating) force in the world that aligned it with ideals of equality, if one tracks the region from the early 1980s.

The symbolic world map would never be read, and is less about denoting spatial relations than the level of data compression photonics can facilitate.  But the image necessarily might preface the problems of mapping Silicon Valley in how it appropriates a chip–an icon of the Valley’s manufacturing fame–as a surface to map a global distribution, if one perhaps legible only in the world of electron microscopy.  The production of such “electronic mini-marvels” by low-salaried immigrant workers–often, unbelievably, not working in laboratories or corporate quarters, but in something like a putting-out industry during the early 1980s, when immigrant workers were taught vocational English to assemble chips or circuit boards at home–provided a forgotten basis for jump-starting an industry in one quite specific site.

The laminated map speaks to the global ties that Silicon Valley mythically forged in a global economy in about those very years, and even the possible mobility of corporations from Silicon Valley, USA, at a time when internet companies began to crest on the World Wide Web, and the release of Google Maps and Earth in 2005 boded a new vitality of a Valley, if no longer only a center of manufacturing, as the site of net-based startups whose interfaces would continue to change how we see the world.  As we have multiple metrics and a near infinity of data to map Silicon Valley, the place it occupies in our mind may be as good a way to map its place in our economy as the data that we have about its performance, productivity, or capital it attracts.  Yet the globalization of the web–and web-platforms–remained rooted in large part to Silicon Valley’s ill-defined structures, as it became the sight of, if not vision, a somewhat evangelical trust in the liberating nature not only of coding and programming, but of creating new social platforms–from credit to finance to medicine to social-networking–that came to define one aspect of globalization in a non-industrial style.

How can the emergence Silicon Valley be best mapped, charted, or expressed?  The ‘engraving’ of global connectivity on a chip celebrate the global reach nano photonics would allow for linking the world, in disciplines from biotech to security to manufacturing to laser lithography.  It celebrates not the medium of the map or the mapped subject, but the very practices of layers of lamination and processing for encoding information as in a map.

Despite the elegance of using the surface of the chip as an actual map, any mapping the region that launched the web’s networks seems far more fraught, if only because its contours continually expand.  The absorption of the world onto the surface of the chip may erase the oddity of Silicon Valley’s unique position as a site of computing technologies and tech investment.  The intricate laminating four layers in the micromap may be less difficult than mapping the overlapping areas that exist simultaneously in the Valley, and the view that appears best, and perhaps only, to insiders of Silicon Valley’s space.  If all maps share deeply encomiastic properties, boasting the limitless possibilities of interconnectednesss, it is not difficult to map how Silicon Valley continues to hold particular primacy within that field.

Conventional tools of map making or metrics of growth are harder to use to track the contours of the Valley.  Even as the end of manufacturing that had boomed in the 1980s meant that suppliers of semiconductors had ceased to be concentrated in the Valley by 2008, and were produced world-wide from Bangalore to Tokyo to Canberra, a map of coeval time charts the persistent centrality Silicon Valley surprisingly continued to retain in a metaphorical landscape of the global economy of knowledge-production:  indeed, the Valley’s status a prominent spike in the knowledge economy, pointedly questioning Tom Friedman’s image of a flattened earth.  For by 2007, Silicon Valley had remained a privileged preeminence as a spike of tech workers, patents, and investment; if it was surpassed in patents by Tokyo and Beijing, it stands out as a center of attracting global capital in a remarkably spiked economy of IT and communications technologies:


Silicon Valley's Place in Global NetworkUrenio (2007)


The persistent concentration of such prominent peaks in the global landscape of “knowledge-production” in Silicon Valley seems partly metaphorical, but is based on the shifting landscape of perpetual abundance in the reborn Valley of Dreams.  Such an image of unending innovation of course conceals the degradation of both the region of the Santa Clara Valley and environs, and masks the disappearance of the valley that was once there, as well as the extraction of funds from region.  The prominence Silicon Valley enjoyed as a peak in global networks of knowledge-production–both in patents and IT employment but, most notably, venture capital–stand out in this map of the inequalities of a “spiked” world, where the United States seemed to hold an undeniable advantage, despite a burgeoning number of patents in Tokyo and Shanghai, and Silicon Valley a prime place, despite the rise of IT from Boston to Austin in the US, and its rise in Ottawa, Berlin or Ireland or Bangalore.

Can these spikes be explained by economists who have sought to map the circulation of currency that was increasingly funneled into Silicon Valley industries, or its level of ingenuity, in order to define the continued centrality that the Valley occupied? While these measures are to an extent circular, they provide a basis to suggested how densely spaces in the Valley overlapped.  To be sure, the density of the Valley as a site of investment alone was remapped by the scale on which start-ups and venture capital were drawn to a single region by the economist Richard Florida, drawing on data from the National Capital Venture Alliance, that as of 2011 focussed an inordinate amount of money on one place:


venture_capital_new2 (1)webZara Matheson, from data of USA Today and National Capital Venture Alliance


But this may use data to boast of the billions of dollars invested, with little fine grain or sense of how things are on the ground in the heterotopic conditions that distinguish the former Valley of Heart’s Delight.  To piggy back on the visualizations of CityLab again, the striking density of the jump in patent applications around San Jose, even in the post-crisis year 2011, reveals the considerable resilience of the Valley, even as ground was ceded to Boston and New York.  The sustaining of a unique market of speculation for knowledge and innovation–despite competition from folks both in Portland, the East Coast, Chicago, as well as Texas:


patent_apps_2011Richard Florida, with Deborah Strumsky


If the weighted nature of the bubble map to the locus of Silicon Valley remains indeed striking–especially for a non-metro area–the density of patents in the Valley before that crisis synoptically map the peculiarity of the Valley’s restless energy as a unique motor for the region that attracted such sustained investment:


patent_lq_pre_recessionAtlantic/City Lab


But does it present an adequate image of the costs–or discrepancies–in the money that flows through its midst, or the corrosive values that it may pose to the local landscape and communities?  What do we truly want to foreground in its maps?  The map that so distinguishes Silicon Valley as the site of patent applications seem to have been filed by folks emulating Steve Jobs’ historical 458 design or tech patents–an astounding number, even if a third were awarded only posthumously.  The huge concentration of patent applications–of which the Apple family was a large share–offer one index of the Valley’s fertility.  It seems only rivaled by corporate centers of innovation in Rochester, NY, home of the Mayo Clinic and IBM campus, and surpass New York, Boston, New Haven or Ann Arbor. And the number of applications for patents the region generated streams down the counties of the Valley gives a sense of its intensity that lay the groundwork for its corporate presence.  Measuring  patents per sq kilometer reveal a striking density, reflected in the over-amplified costs of local real estate:


patent_dens_UPDATED jjgAtlantic/City Lab/Zara Matheson, Martin Prosperity Institute


Another emblem of Silicon Valley as aspiring to a perennial site of innovation might reflect the huge cult around innovation tied to industries in the Valley–one aspect of which is revealed in the almost entrancing visualization of the patents linked to Steve Jobs across different sectors of tech and design.  The image of an expanding, apparently boundless range of patents across that proliferate across different sectors of local industry are all tied to Jobs–who in appears below as a light blue node, mid-central, from which spins out thin blue lines to diverse sectors of technology and design–but seem to expand outward, as if without bounds or clear center, but boundless energy, in an apparently endlessly self-generating web-like form, without clearly planned growth.  For it in some way reflects the spread and growth of Silicon Valley itself, and of the range of new products and devices with which Silicon Valley had become increasingly defined.




André Vermeij:  Visualization of patents associated with Steve Jobs, shown as a blue node above center


11.  But the set of maps raise cautious questions of how data can actually measure the productivity of Silicon Valley.  Although such collections of economic data can, to be sure, help to envision the continued prominence of the region as a center that attracted investment through markets for circuits, chips, algorithms, platforms, or congeries of online services, they don’t map the reasons for its survival with any clarity, and only affirm its importance as a focus of national, if not global, attention, and don’t describe the peculiarity of its status as a ‘place’ or geographic region.  They surely pose questions of how to visualize the data that provide metrics of its growth, but only by considering the profound placelessness” of Silicon Valley–and its prominence as a center of transit, but also as a between-space through which workers, commuters, money and big finance moves, can we map the very sorts of swarming that have defined it for almost fifty years–and have continued to work against any attempt to level the playing field.  The multiple contradictions in the place-name of Silicon Valley, as a place between nature and culture, between global and local, and between workplace and commercial space, seem as good a place as any to start.

The map showing the multiple corporations that ring the South Bay with which this post began surely conceals the local losses that the reinvention of the Valley endured.  What continued to distinguish Silicon Valley as a center of innovation, and what sort of maps would make sense of its disproportionate advantages in a global marketplace, and a sort of emblem of globalization, which was ready to discard its dominance in the semiconductor to cultivate new platforms of prosperity farmed and nourished by Google?  While seeming to draw on a reservoir of coders and start-ups that lie within close proximity, allowing it to extract technologies, money, and platforms from a strikingly dense space, more competitive than many other places in the US.  For if toponymy was long intended as metonymy in Silicon Valley, the innovation clustered around the Valley tells but half the story–and erases the obliteration of a long-disappeared Valley of Heart’s Desire.  While we are dazzled by the glittery array of patents that proceeded from the Valley’s economic growth, the costs of being on the edge of the future may be about to come home to roost.

Despite the vaunted fertility of the region, its riches were of course never by any means ever accessible to all.  The region of Silicon Valley has  the most accentuated disparities in wealth in the country, with some 20% of its inhabitants living in poverty and a strikingly expansion of poverty across the regions, in something of a microcosm of the coming global economy in which 1% of the global population own over half of the world’s wealth.  The demographic divisions of Silicon Valley run sharply against the message of inclusiveness that is diffused as if a meme by most all Silicon Valley firms:  the suburbanization of poverty across the Bay Area, as in America, pushes poorer residents to outlying suburbs and include Silicon Valley and the South Bay–making it among the most pronounced regions of the divergent wealth in the nation, from East Palo Alto to Morgan Hill.  For if it is a center of a booming tech economy, the San Jose-Santa Clara region is the seventh largest concentration of homeless in the United States–including major metropolitan regions–leading many without homes in Silicon Valley to be concentrated in a 68 acre encampment in a sunken subdivision along Coyote Creek, a shantytown of tree-houses, lean-tos and jerry-rigged tents whose residents were recently evicted from encampment that was close to some of the largest players in Silicon Valley and United States.  Many of its inhabitants were chronically homeless, some pressed out by a soaring housing market driven sky-high by the swarming of tech workers–inability to pay rent is the major cause of homelessness, as well as homeless techies:  for the swarming of Silicon Valley has itself produced its underside in the Jungle, the negative space to the corporate abundance Desrosiers has continued to map yearly, an unconcealed encampment by the route 280, and a counterpart to its sanitized spaces.  Most workers ar oblivious of it even as they espouse helping the world.  (If what was the nation’s former largest homeless encampment was forcibly cleared over Christmas 2014, a New Jungle of homeless quickly emerged farther from downtown San Jose.)



Peninsula Press JunglePeninsula Press


One Third of Homeless in 10 cities

Placelessness seems to give way to homelessness: the Jungle’s growth from the Recession, right along the 280, had lead many to wonder weather apps could create communities, and how a center of wealth-creation includes unlikely poor.  The greater density homelessness in this small region speaks to the deep sense of being broken in a region where real estate prices grew so improbably high so suddenly, stripping many of stability in a market that was hard to comprehend.  For in the same region of corporate abundance, one in ten depend on a food bank, and the costs of corporate bankruptcy and costs of living may have created a new Grapes of Wratheven as Tech CEO’s seem among the nation’s leading philanthropists.  Silicon Valley’s tech firms enjoy extreme sources of investment; products of unrivaled popularity  boosted average salaries of $76,593 in 2011, compared with a national figure of $50,502, according to the American Community Survey.  And yet, also according to the Survey, 13.9 percent of the 40 million residents of San Jose went without health insurance–and the region offered one of the lowest residual values for average wages in the state.  Few rewards of the Valley’s dominant industry reach many of its residents, whose corporate campuses are clustered in close proximity.  One aspect of the coherence of Silicon Valley is that few fortunate to partake from its prosperity–overwhelmingly both white and male.


places.poverty.pct.colorPolis, Changing Percentage of Families in Poverty, 1990-2010

Deep divisions in the formerly landscape of Silicon Valley tellingly emerge when the region is rampaged by racial self-identification, the strikingly segregated community that appears, concentrations of self-reported “whites” in the American Community Survey noted in by red dots, apart from “Asians” who noted by green dots, and “other” by noted by yellow dots and a few African Americans by the few blue dots:



Race and Ethnicity in San Jose--Green asian, red white, blue black, yellow otherDustin Cable–detail of Racial Dot Map 


Despite the near-talismanic quality of Silicon Valley in our national imagination and economy, the region is become a microcosm of our inequality–sixty-plus billionaires inhabited one of the most radically socially unequal places in the United States to live.  For even while trumpeting egalitarianism and open-ness, tech firms in Silicon Valley remain the epitome of a closed society, whose quite conservative hiring practices, despite an embrace of a rhetoric of transparency and progress, and a deep belief in rationality–obliterates an open playing field.  Most tech workers draw from quite demographically similar cohorts (streaming from Stanford, UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon to San Jose State), and Silicon Valley tech firms attract far fewer fewer minorities than are represented in American college graduates.  The overwhelmingly male ethos of programming and coding, and increasingly male-identified nature of corporate ideologies of rugged individualism and empowerment, Vikram Chandra and others have argued, had become attached to programming and business in Silicon Valley.  The distinction between manufacture and coding–and the intellectual genius of programming–had early defined deep splits in how merit and credit was awarded in Silicon Valley’s industry, and indeed who the major “players” were.

For the disguised workplaces in Silicon Valley electronics firms long concealed the huge appropriation of unseen migrant labor who filled jobs often most closely involving carcinogenic chemicals and metals.  David N. Pellow argued migrant workers who undergirded the electronics and computing industries in the same Valley once used for farming fruit remained less able or likely to unionize than the migrant fruit workers of earlier generations, who worked canning and drying fruits of the same land; the expropriation of labor was not especially unfettered in the Santa Clara Valley, but the remarkable success of the union-free policies of the electronics industry and computing companies silenced the exposure to and production of carcinogens which have led to the huge concentration of superfund sites–what Tom Foremski calls its “sweetly toxic center.”  Despite the formation of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition to protect workers as early as 1982, the perpetuation of the belief of a “clean industry”  concealed the toxic work environments involving thousands of metals and chemicals used to produce chips, perpetuated by concealing the air ducts, chemical discharge, and smokestacks of the region.  (Those exposed to these toxic chemicals were the “silent workers” of the valley:  women, immigrants, minorities–often underreported or not included in tallies of exposure to carcinogenic risks.)


“‘I love it that you call it a campus.  That’s very cool.  We used to call this places offices.'”  –Dave Eggers, The Circle

12.  The logic of financial extraction and expropriation of capital generated a concentrated stock market of venture capital, whose ties to a global market which oddly skewed the internet economy and sites of hi-tech startups founded since 2002:  if expanded to include San Francisco, the expanding Valley  numbers a prolific two-hundred-and-ten, and leads particularly in those companies funded by venture capital (568), few of whose wealth was widely shared.



vc_funded3webCity Lab/Atlantic


Such visualizations echoed the spiked world map offer some evidence of a northward shift of the center of gravity from Silicon Valley in recent years, and what Richard Florida calls a broader urban shift in whatever “model” of high-tech start ups exists.  But it ignores the transformations and expansions which have reshaped Silicon Valley itself, as if in the need to trumpet a pronouncedly whiggish story of the world-wide spread of markets of innovation as if driven by an invisible hand, and indeed the transfiguration that the Valley has undergone as a site of commerce and work, transforming the Valley from a fixed site of work to one of the global circulation of capital in surprising ways.  Can one rather speak of the swarming of the Valley as an appropriate metaphor for economic development?  Or how can this corporate swarming be explained?  The animalistic connotations of the metaphor as a collective behavior of aggregation which lacks any central coordination, driven by its own intelligence which serves to model a complex system whose self-organization cannot be perceived from any fixed or single perspective, or locally rooted model of rational intelligence, may indeed provide one basis to conceiving of mapping Silicon Valley, rather than seeking grounds for its own rationality or searching for reasons for the coordination of its emergence.

While the causes of Silicon Valley’s pronounced peak in the metaphorical map above may be unclear, persistent vaunting of the “new economy” has created a focus of global capital across several generations that have wrought a rewriting of its workplace.  They suggest the huge investment in local property–and site-specific location of industrial giants in the region of Silicon Valley–whose campuses create the ultimate reification of a new site for work and the rewriting of the region as a workplace–and the increased residential remove of its economy from many of its residents.

The metaphorical remapping of an unequal tech landscape in a globalized economy seems tied to successfully sustaining of the metaphor of the Valley’s fertile setting of entrepreneurship and innovation, even as the continuation of its metaphorically fertile terrain, this post suggests, concealed the degradation of the real local landscape of the South Bay:  even in asserting the vitality of the Valley as a privileged site of innovation, and a mecca of entrepreneurship, an expanding market for platforms of fixed obsolescence and unknown opportunities masked the degradation of its former fertility.  If cultivating markets for platforms of e-commerce and social media were fed by the global expansion of the invisible empire of the internet, the sustained metaphorical mapping of a landscape of plenty, and innovation and progress, masked the dissonance between the region’s corporate configuration and the disappearance of its landscape.  Santa Clara University, seeking to attract students to the land of 6,600 science and tech start-ups, echoes the disappearance of place in the region by prominently situating its own campus amidst a corporate landscape as if it has displaced the toponyms of a lived terrain, to orient prospective students to what it optimistically calls a “mindset” more than an actual space:




Is this region perhaps better understood by the category of the geographer and anthropologist Marc Augé has used to describe a ‘non-place’, defined more by the experience of transience–even as Silicon Valley is defined as a place of work and, not only of work, but of innovation and tech?  The meta-geographical concept of a heterotopia not able to be embodied on a map, ranging from the points of transit such as airports or freeway rest-stops and hotels to the absent spaces we occupy before a monitor or TV, are defined by a space of partial subjective perception that seems apt in particular ways in the valley, and especially applicable to a lamination of distinct points of orientation–one can sense at least three above, from the contours of shorelines and oceans to the cities to the corporate topology, as well as the tacit omitted map of freeways that physically connect them on commuter lines.  Absent for all practical purposes, the “Valley” seems present to the extent of the partial awareness of space that exist for its inhabitants–a similar awareness is produced by the reader of the above, where a landscape of the brands of innovation consumed has replaced an actual topography, as routes of transit through the space replace an embodied entity, and global industrial entities displace the orienting cues of toponymy, now demoted to a distinctly lighter shade of font.

If Silicon Valley is the unseemly aggregate of such clusters of corporate quasi-toponyms, or the critical mass of a corporate collective it creates in an era of late capitalism, more than a place, or a mappable space–something contained in ways akin to a theme-park or game-board more than a space physically occupied or to which one can be oriented.  Newly-built corporate ‘campuses’, increasingly segregated and built apart from local communities, make manifest the complex relation to place that most corporate entities increasingly feel.  One heart of the region, the Googleplex, defines itself both as a central part of the Valley, yet not of it, and as a bounded island in an archipelago of imagined places each discretely situated within the Valley as individual sites, but as collectively constituting one region–or imagined work place, with its own clear borders.  Each, indeed, modeled after the classic case of space moved through–the “campus”–has been argued to be an attempt to create something like its very own city–the physical evidence of its corporate independence–even as these conceptual campuses are so often attempted to be grouped as a region; even as they exist as micro-cities that dot the rim of the South Bay, as if they were enclosed biospheres of their own, the secrecy that attends to each site of production at Google, Facebook, Electronic Arts, and Apple conceals their relation to one another, investing each its own image of insularity and high-stakes secrecy, as if it were a microcosm that has spun off from Silicon Valley as a whole.

What are these satellites an attempt to deal with swarming of the region by both providing expansive real estate in a crowded market, and economically withdrawing to gated enclaves, separate from the communities in which they live?



Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 7.56.35 PMGoogleplex in Mountain View


electronic-arts-hq-with-3000-apartments-aerialElectronics Arts in Redwood City


Tech-Campus-Study-Facebook-CityFacebook City in Menlo Park


Tech-Campus-Study-iTowniTown in Cupertino


The eery similarity of the oculus of iTown to photographs of GCHQ by Trevor Paglen is surprising and scary:


Screen-Shot-2014-10-27-at-10-1.47.13-528x300Trevor Paglen


But, as the CIA admits its nongoing struggle to break the secrecy and code of Apple’s iPhones, the similarity between these agencies of encryption may not be indeed so far apart as seems as each seems merchants of secrecy.

And, as Google hopes to double its Mountain View-based workforce from 11,322 to over 24,000 and expand the square footage its owns in the North Bayshore area north of the 101, on properties it’s acquired from 2005 to 2011, building a huge multi-building campus of its own, completing its four buildings of 3.4 million sq. feet in the seven million sq. feet of office space in Bayshore properties owned in the area by LinkedIn and Microsoft:




Plans for Google’s New Complex in North Bayshore

These buildings are the apotheosis of the swarming of the Valley.  For Jim Morgenstern, the chief of Linked In’s realty, the huge advantages of creating the goal of a “critical mass” of workers in one region–transformed the areas of farming and former junkyards to bucolic satellites, in which one can “drive out in this incredibly tree-lined, almost serene place,” and find that “It’s five minutes in between buildings. It’s not 15 minutes or a half hour because you’re driving somewhere.”  The swarming of Silicon Valley has its end product in the foundation of the Googleplex in 2003,

This “hiving off” of workplaces in the North Bayshore area, as the consolidation of such complexes across the peninsula, suggests a desire to keep coders, engineers, financial folks, and design within close communication, the lived geography of the company, which often employs spouses, family members, and in-laws, reflects the family-oriented corporate collective that has come to pass for “community” across Silicon Valley, but whose real estate scramble excludes much property rates from members of the community outside the corporate constellations–Google Inc., LinkedIn Corp., Intuit Inc., Microsoft–that have become powerful property owners of much of the land, as if in a material apotheosis of the Citizens United Ruling of  2010 about corporate personhood.

Is there any surprise that the very social media titans of Silicon Valley offer a new way to map the intersection between public media and social space in the state?

INstagram-Twitter-FlickerAlan McConchie/stamen design



“‘We value your work-life balance, you know, the calibration between your online life here at the company and outside it.  I hope that’s clear.  Is it?”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle


13.  These theoretically independent architectural “places” in the peninsula convey impregnable self-sufficiency.  They both mask the very nature of the inter-related economy of the region as a trading zone in which employees and material moves, and place each in its own field of green.  Their discreteness belies that they are situated on a network of freeways, offering spaces to move through, as much as real residences.  They are miniature Valleys of the Heart’s Delight, echoing the earlier name of the Santa Clara Valley, each networked  in a broader cultural space, aspiring to be a place.

The non-place that is known collectively Silicon Valley was of course the focus and launching pad for a globalized economy of late capitalism, in which the production of competing platforms and forms of intellectual property have replaced the production of goods.  This seems no coincidence, and specific to the unique heterotopic space in which the majority seem to be working from behind computer screens.  For this reason, perhaps, despite the seeming possibility of the mobility of the moniker Silicon Valley, despite some success in recreating similar or analogous sites of corporate investment and entrepreneurial backing, a similar density of clubiness among investors does not actually exist.  Even if the notion of “another Silicon Valley” has led the term geographically circulate with symbolic currency, and be  playfully truncated to christen hopeful destinations or centers of innovation and venture capital–Silicon Alley, even as it appears prominently emblazoned as a destination on freeways from Milpitas to San Jose, briefly if spectacularly led to Silicon Alley in Manhattan, or Silicon Hills outside Austin, as sites of tech start-ups, or Silicon Allée in Berlin, or Silicon Docks in Dublin“Silicon Roundabout” in London, Silicon North in Ottawa, or, back in the United States, “Silicon Prairie,” alternately located in Des Moines (Iowa), Texas (Fort Worth) or Oklahoma City, or the Silicon Valleys of the South–even as the name is imitated, as if it were a mantra or a spell, each compete for a symbolic marker of prosperity.






But can any acquire the aura of an innovation hub that can symbolically naturalize itself as a comparable wellspring of innovation?  Perhaps they are hindered in doing so, because of the unique nature of Silicon Valley as a “non-place”:  even as maps provide important ways of narrating the status of a Valley, its definition makes most sense to inhabitants than it can be described by traditional cartographical tools.  And so it seems apt that as the Valley survives as a center of investment, it makes sense for Mike Judge’s television comedy to look back and illuminate the insider’s story of what was there at the start as a way to map its emergence as an island in our radically uneven sociocultural landscape.  For if Silicon Valley’s contours or location seem to defy mapping, but the fixity of a privileged place exists as one that seems able to be invested with objectivity or fixity, when viewed at the scale of a national map, and its very privileged position in our national economy suddenly emerges in ways that demand to be explained:


Internet IPOs mapped


For while the Arpanet seemed to promise a landscape of packet-switched computer networks, but the focus and locus of the world-wide system of internet protocols oddly seems to have been most successfully reaped in a precise location, even if we now imagine it as a World Wide Web without parameters and not able, as a constellation of information, to be geographically constrained.




The quite grossly skewed nature of the geographic distribution, crudely mapped to be sure, suggests the existence of almost gravitational forces that attracted those corporations that the internet enabled to one small region, boosted by the presence of communities of coders in outlying areas, governmental agencies and research centers, and a unique nourishment from private universities that have actively encouraged its expansion in multiple ways, and perhaps created a climate of financial possibilities that have helped set it apart from the nation.  Despite the global reach of the internet, the population of coders and local reinvestment in platforms has meant the location of the largest billion-dollar internet-based IPO’s from Zynga to Google to Facebook–as well in biotech and medical instruments, according to the Small Business Administration–affirms the geographic centrality Silicon Valley holds of a network at first appearing to transcend geographic specificity:  as well as straddling municipalities, the somewhat inexplicable concentration of capital in a cluster of corporate campuses which seems to hold themselves to standards apart from government is defined by an community rich with start-ups and coders, continuing to attract IPO’s in the face of other potential sites which boast still lower taxes–or sales taxes–from Costa Rica or Rosarito to Seattle, Dublin, or Switzerland, as the privileged site for generating phenomenal wealth and profits.  Even as such alternate “Silicon Valleys” proliferate in an attempt to wrest the moniker and good fortune from California, however, including across the necklace of Silicon Valleys of the southern United States, situated amidst zones of pronounced poverty.  Silicon Valley has expanded, and still retains global centrality as the hub of tech–or the competition for the title of Silicon Valley North in Canada between the former unchallenged holder of the title, Ottawa, with Calgary, Vancouver, and Waterloo, only the latter was in fact awarded a “five bar” rank of signal strength, as if that was a predictor of who would inherit the moniker in northern climes.

Despite the diffuse nature of such apparent competition, Silicon Valley continues to hold a clearly dominant gravitational pull–not only because of its new status as a pool of startups who can advertise to larger corporations, but as a community into which one can break.  Many corporations located in the Valley–perhaps unsurprisingly–have, to be sure, regularly sheltered their huge profits overseas, both resisting or avoid federal prosecution for not paying their share of local or federal taxes, encouraging them to remain based in the US due to a beneficial tax code, even in the face of attractively low tax-rates elsewhere–and even leading them to expect similar tax-breaks in other countries.  While the special relation of tech to tax code demands much research, the economic incentives of remaining located in the Valley seems based between a symbolic capital and capital gains, lowering their tax rates by stockpiling 1.7 trillion of earnings overseas is something of a scam that permits tech to draw increased symbolic capital to the Bay Area’s shores.  (Given not-so-recent revelations of the scope of NSA hunger for dragnet surveillance of web browsers and cell phones for data collection, and the use of web browsers for individual geolocation, is it indeed too sinister to imagine a shady backroom quid pro quo between platforms or software providers, as Jacob Applebaum argued, from Yahoo! to Sun to Microsoft to Dell to Apple, to, knowingly or unknowingly, allow them back-door access to private online communication?  Or is some such quid-pro-quo enabling of backdoor electronic access for spooks just too paranoid and too staggeringly illegal to even imagine?)

Without being overly apocalyptic, the very insider nature of the Valley tempts such outlandish hypotheses.  With their ability to defer taxes on income deemed reinvested, the expansion of software companies and campuses has overflowed from Silicon Valley to offshore satellite campuses, driven partly by the pursuit of Larry Page’s “perfect search engine” that transparently understands the desires of its users, Silicon Valley can hardly contain its growth.  Silicon Valley is rarely a site of residence, these days, so much as it has morphed into a site of work, of course, if only because its real estate is so crowded with corporate parks, and so directly fed by freeways that run from residential areas from not only Mountain View or Sunnyvale but Santa Cruz or San Francisco.  It is a space of interaction between coders, venture capitalists, and startups whose specificity almost exists as a focal point of commute lines–from which most of its workers have been priced out.

Desrosiers’ popular pictorial mapping of Silicon Valley has helped rebrand its economical vitality as a land of plenty, adapting a particularly clever conceit in a clever sleight of hand that conceals its own nature as an illusion.  It conceals the fact that its contours or centers are problematic to map as a unified terrain, and that the few invited to the apparently profitable spaces are quite select.  It appears as a vast archipelago of corporate settings exists, whose members drink from a common, secret source–as if the concealed aquifers of innovation and venture capitalism had replaced the estuaries that once irrigated the South Bay, but the image of plenty is of course something of a self-perpetuated myth. The image of a wealth of “innovation clusters” was mapped by McKinsey digital some six years ago in ways that captured its unique place in our mental map in a similarly stylish design, but one of similarly questionable meaning:  the corporate buzzwords of “momentum,” “dynamic oceans,” and “innovation” seem puzzlingly abstracted from its sense of place, though we get the idea of its greater importance than other California cities to tech.




Leaving such corporate buzzwords demands some serious spatial and cognitive remapping–not least because creating a cartography of the creative community of coders and coded is particularly compelling.  (What sort of “diversity”–no doubt in ventures, not in workforce–the map implied seems to lie in its use of corporate buzzwords which features “dynamic oceans” of momentum among investors, as much as productivity.)

The state of the Valley, still depicted as a land of jobs and opportunity still demand mapping at the intersection between hedonism and opportunism, between work, venture capital and tax-dodges, and at the unclear intersection of a mental, economic and corporate space, more than a “place”–a terrain and superimposed on separate municipalities, bridging once clearly drawn county lines, which has become part of our mental universe but one looks to old maps vainly to find.  Even as Silicon Valley emerged as an increasingly central sector of our national economy in the United States, it has increasingly acted as its own republic–diverting over $100 billion dollars into overseas tax shelters, even as it conserves an imaginary capital and value into a specific place, tied to a global circulation of capital.   The extraction of wealth in the Valley foreground the difficult-to-pinpoint rationale for its enduring economic prosperity.

As a site of employment, it most often remains only an almost imaginary destination for tech workers, as much as a community of entrepreneurs or innovators.  It is the classic contemporary image of a  community one wants to join, whose boundaries are often hard to map with any fixity because of their own elusiveness.  In Mike Judge’s television drama, however, we are suddenly there.  More an enclave, preserve or invisibly gated community than “place,” we can see the origins of the new state of Silicon Valley is an enclave to be recruited to, which deems itself external to a jurisdiction.  In a sense, the Valley’s unique status is historically mapped in Judge’s historical drama, a comedy about the vicissitudes of coders, programmers, and capitalists in the social interface that occurred at start-ups of the 1980s at the fictitious corporate setting of “Hooli” (aka, Google) about data compression:  the drama examines the Valley as a privileged site for designing software to now-familiar platforms of global exchange, and the high prices and potential popularity start-ups command as their stocks rise, making fun of the language of marketing and purchases of often undisclosed prices based on ever-rising valuations and semi-cannibalistic buyouts by corporations eager to boost their own values.  In the historical drama of six characters in search of six-figure salaries, buyouts, data compression algorithms, elevator pitches, unfunded startups, reverse engineering and cloud platforms become narrative devices of plot development, exposing the culture of programming as a hidden social topography of Silicon Valley featuring fierce corporate competition, hiring practices, and hedonism.  If Silicon Valley has rarely reflected America, we enjoy being invited to experience the story of “Hooli” that might be the most compelling “reality” TV show of all–one about which we all feel some purchase, and can at last participate, now finally having been invited to view and happily if vicariously partake, if without shares.


14.   The very same terrain that nation was long eagerly watching–if at several removes, to be sure–in our social imaginary at the same time as we have increasingly interfaced with its products is now available on TV where the idealized vision of the Valley exists as a form we can all be vicariously involved.   All this makes it particularly interesting to locate Silicon Valley’s centers or purported bounds, or to imagine the construction of the world or Silicon Valley to which we are given access on HBO:  as one of the ultimate insider stories that plays for a large audience nationwide, Judge’s eponymous sitcom is perhaps the best historical map of the Valley, since it offers perspectives to viewers, offering a in-jokes and partly recognizable routines, presenting itself as the results of something like a mock-ethnography of the Valley’s recognizable ideal types–hackers, coders, by-standers and backers–from within its own social space.)  In a clever historical drama, a world unfolds  to which we are peripheral but which we are all, by now, implicated, featuring stock characters with whom we are all too familiar, but who are compelling since they seem so far away from our present world of online-surveillance, geolocation tracking and cyberterrorism, these fresh, youthful faces present a compellingly contrasting image of charming naive in their earnest optimism of kids on the make during the 1980s.  (Is there also something appealing about such a boys’ club scenario imagining Silicon Valley as a fencing-ground of a nerdy frat-house for guys on the make–despite increasing awareness of incidents of sexism and harassment from investors in the tech industry?)




The show is in a sense a retrospective thematization of the non-place of the Valley.  The not-so-hidden story of the six characters in search of generating more than six-figure salaries is that everyone wants to be part of the Valley, or to be seen as lying at its center.  If a remorphing of the American Dream, it is one to which not many are invited or allowed.  (The success of an HBO documentary about gangs in Oakland and Los Angeles, “Bastards of the Party,” set in the Oakland of 1995, is a lesson in property values and the imaginary social landscapes we watch on TV.)  Being a central player in Silicon Valley is itself a way of boosting one’s valuation, and acquiring the latest start-up is a central way of remapping one’s place in the Valley’s highly corporate landscape.  Forty years after the term was still introduced by sales teams back when it was one of the most important manufacturing areas on earth, even in the post-Netscape landscape, littered with discarded platforms and providers, it continues to attract investors by promising platforms.  Even as Windows 10 boasts to unite user-experiences across devices by”offering a familiar experiences as they switch back and forth from personal computers, to tables, smartphones and other gadgets such as gaming consoles or even holographic projectors,” as the AP put it, and movement past the event threshold of the anthropocene in which smart phones outnumber global inhabitants, a vision that led Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to address the needs of “a world in which there are going to be more devices on the planet than people,” the ever-expanding markets for the same devices continue to concentrate revenues in Silicon Valley, directing global capital to the Valley of the Heart’s Delight–and increasingly attach its devises to the notion of the consumer’s delight, by design or ingenuity.

Indeed, even if a relatively select proportion of viewers were anticipated to find the show popular–according to Echelon Analytics–the widespread success of the show suggests the interest of most Americans in its subject.


Expected Popularity SV

Long after it has relinquished its role as a center of chip- or transistor-manufacturing, or even as it continues to hold prominence as the sole global site or the center of software industry, Silicon Valley exists so prominently in our collective geographical imaginary as a site of both start-ups and coders, as we participate, in Judge’s serial drama, with its new platforms, ventures, and IPO’s.  The new  produce of “Silicon Valley” is increasingly rooted in its eventual inevitable obsolescence, as new platforms are updated and replace the old with rapid-fire succession of appropriately punctuated decimals, as if the valley itself recapitulates the MJT send-up of Geoffrey Sonnabend’s three-volume theorization of Obliscence that forgetting is “the inevitable outcome of all experience”–subtitled “Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter“–in which all the past is truly irretrievable, and memory a comforting construction to buffer ourselves from such necessary disappearance.  For supersession increasingly is normative in Silicon Valley.

Despite the immaterial matter of its merchandise, the concentration of work in Silicon Valley is set apart from the country as an idealized workplace.  That the Valley currently continues in its constellation, as a concentration of a center for internet-based IPO’s may actually seem something of a puzzle, despite the persistence of its prominence in our national imaginary.  This might seem particularly paradoxical, given that the Arpanet was first designed by the military as the sort of mobile network they sought to construct the  as able to withstand air-raids or nuclear attack, and lacking any center that could be dismantled or targeted in attack, but that provided the sort of ghost like infrastructure that could preserve the unity of the nation in the case that several major cities were obliterated–as J.C.R. Licklider proposed a “galactic network” of computers that could talk to one another as a response to the potential for the destruction of our national infrastructure in case of a (Soviet) missile or nuclear attack that got special traction at the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, and provided the impetus for projects of “packet-switching” for sending data along an invisible network from computer to computer, following its own route from place to place that defied easy mapping.

The sort of non-site-specific mobile network that the military envisioned led John Unsworth to note its chronological similarity to the synthesis of LSD consumed in the Bay Area in rendering place meaningless.  The one-time counter-culture novelist Thomas Pynchon to imagine the circa 1970 computer geek Fritz to feel his mind blown at the revelation that when he ponders how, since when “gets on this ARPAnet trip, and I swear it’s like acid, a whole ‘nother strange world – time, space, all that shit,” whether “they gonna make it illegal.”  Both reference Ken Kesey’s calling the prototype of the Internet–Douglas Engelbart’s oN-Line System–as “the next thing after acid” for its associative structure.  Yet the site Silicon Valley, rather than offer the placelessness the Arpanet promised, has held almost gravitational pull among internet startups from 1996 to 2006,  according to the Small Business Administration, in ways that would probably make it a prime target for missile attack–if we were worried about it.  Although cyberpunk prophet William Gibson presciently evoked the same line of thought in Neuromancer, describing cyberspace as premised upon the “consensual hallucination” of online existence, Silicon Valley has generated both a staggering number of jobs and amount of money in one puzzlingly apparently perversely specific geographic location.


15.   It makes sense to consider the odd dynamic of permanence and impermanence in Silicon Valley as a heterotopic space or cluster of heterotopia–defined by the transit of workers, flow of capital, and expansion of interfaces–that have radically rewritten an ecosystem or its own.  The very fluidity of the streams of commute-migration might be mapped not only on the distribution by which Stamen effectively mapped the residences of workers to their workplace destinations, both to aid folks in Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! to ferry some 7,500 tech workers from the city to work by the most effective paths and recruit tech workers to Silicon Valley by providing them with an alternative mode of collective transportation on dark-windowed WiFi busses to avoid a nasty commute.  The lamination of these commute routes over the Stamen Toner base map stacks data in ways that allowed the companies of Silicon Valley to best visualize and identify with the fluidity of peninsular destinations of commute, in ways that effectively depict the heterotopic spaces in which the Tech workers of the Valley moved:


iBus_linesEric Rodenbeck/Stamen Design


The swarming of Silicon Valley itself transformed  a space that once enjoyed clear boundaries into a new sort of space for investment as well as workspace, almost paradoxically, erases what was there and exists as it grows without any actual center or sense of fixity, even as its place-name is co-opted all over the world map.  If the name is often reproduced or coopted, the lost or absent nature of the Valley–or the ambivalence contained in that ever-popular playful oxymoron “Silicon Valley”–seems as good a place as any to start to consider its current creation, by reaching back in time before the 1980s life shown on Judge’s show, to recuperate the metaphorical vitality that the term first coined in the early 1970s sought to capture.

To discuss the displacement of the Santa Clara Valley offers a sort of conceptual base-map to begin to describe the story of corporate growth in an actual terrain.  For even if the current corporate-campus-laden valley denies either its polluting or increasingly polluted nature, mapping the rise of its congested campuses might begin by taking stock of the surrounding sunlit counties were fed by rivers and agriculturally rich–even if few of the farmers’ markets in the Valley now feature the local produce once grown right outside San Jose along Coyote Creek or the San Joaquin River.  The notion that space and community are only created in the same site now among the shoppers at farm-fresh markets, a destination valued as a “walkable space” uniquely able to “create a sense of place in Silicon Valley,” suggests a deep vein of romanticism for the current disappearance of the Valley that once was–filled with local garlic, strawberries, eggs, and chard–even if it paradoxically means growing acres of  lettuce in large warehouses under pink and purple LED’s, among other innovations in “Smart” agriculture–as if to compensate for the metamorphosis that the Valley has itself undergone.  Yet despite a clear fascination with green tech, and a boom in the commitment to clean-tech investment and “enviro-investing” in 2012, from Solyndra to Kleiner-Perkins, the joy expressed at the market’s oscillation away from “trendy eco-projects that failed” and to a commitment to addressing “market needs” celebrated by the Wall Street Journal as a return to its sensible role of enriching the world.

The oscillation between two deities in the Valley of Heart’s Delight–between nature and money, between green environmentalism and technology–is evident in the vanishing nature of the one-time Valley itself, whose topography is now erased, for all practical purposes, by the concentration on freeways on which one moves, and the almost universal historical amnesia with which one proceeds along its freeways to work.


Santa Clara county


While the water is no longer nearly so clean and the same region is marked not only by superfund sites left by the toxic chemicals of semiconductor industries, the region’s rich groundwater aquifers are replaced by the “Purple Pipelines” of waste-water re-use, providing recycled water to the region once filled with cherry orchards from East Palo Alto to south of San Jose.




For the oxymoronic transformation of the Valley of Heart’s Delight into a “paradise for engineers” was based on far more than an apt slogan of marketing or metaphor for corporate synergy or change:   its fecundity as a site for IPOs has both replaced and erased its former wealth of apricots and prunes.  Silicon Valley reflects the transmogrifying reality of industrial parks spread over real estate lots in a matrix of freeways, without fixed center, boundaries, or terrain and spread across multiple municipalities, and is a quintessential heterotopia of intersecting worlds and spaces, lying on the edge of mapped space, and actualized only on cyberspace rather than in space.  Oddly, Silicon Valley is also defined by its replacement of the once-bucolic landscape that was there–and more a distributed network than a collection of defined lots, or the boundaries of property drawn by classical Roman agrimensores, as well as being unbounded quintessentially defines a site whose its inhabitants lack many of the fruits of their community–even as those new fruits are trumpeted as the most productive of the world–that is both obstinately opaque to outsiders beneath a smog-filled haze and demanding a greater transparency.

“Silicon Valley” is almost an ironic toponym of the tongue-in-cheek, a metonym orienting one to a mythic space that sharply contrasts to the clarity of late nineteenth-century maps of Santa Clara County–a landscape predating even what Steve Jobs quite evangelistically ironically termed “B.C.”–before computers.


149syllabus14postcardSan Jose Public Library


The current clustering of a network of corporate campuses around San Jose, a new Stanford and encroaching San Francisco Bay invites mapping its hidden network of trust, corporate proximity, and investment upon the metaphorical perpetuation of a lost land of orchards that an image of apparent cleanliness and idyllic expanse.  For a half-century no longer an expanse of orchards, no longer divided by clear municipalities, the expansive sprawl has served as an incubator than a launching pad of Microsoft, Google, “Silicon Valley” is truly more of a metonym than toponym.  Burgeoning sprawl, having displaced the orchards, has endured as a site where the production of microchips fostered a mental space in a network of venture capitalism, patent applications, and IPO’s.  The transformation of the site from blossoming orchards to a site that, as an “edge city” for journalist and geographer Joel Garreau, more fully exist as places for its inhabitants they share clear boundaries or municipal identities, exist as an interlocking framework of industrial parks, almost like a theme park than a stationary location.

Yet Silicon Valley, as much as being only an “edge city,” is a concept that resists being mapped for a variety of reasons that are built into its very construction as a landscape of almost infinite ingenuity and invention:  if it were bounded, this would be to constrain the proliferation of the provides of platforms and unbounded nature of the internet itself.  Indeed, the contours of this Valley are not open or subject to public observation, perhaps because they define a site of experimentation and neigh fifty years of advance, and the mindset perpetuated at the site of work behind closed doors of corporations indeed suggest the secretive nature of what actually happens in the Valley as a reason for its fertility:  if we were to actually map it, we might be able to understand what occurs there, and the mystique of its centrality would wear thin.  Indeed, the corporate landscape of the Valley as it has developed seems filled by a seemingly healthy competition between entrepreneurs, coders, and franchised trademarks who compete not only for being identified with quality, but seem to fence for connotations of its one-time fecundity or abundance in the 1880s–back when the South Bay was indeed nourished by rich networks of estuaries, rather than venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

Perhaps the planned obsolescence of many of the electronic products and software platforms that most of us cycle through, forever obtaining new updates, creates a cycle of forgetting what the Valley once was, that both makes the early maps of Desrosiers look so very quaint in deed, and the maps of the earlier appearance of Santa Clara valley as if they had receded into the past with a velocity that surpassed much of the traditional landscapes of the nation, as if memories of what it once held recede such rapidity to erase any sense of their pasts.  If the folks at the Museum of Jurassic Technology posit forgetting as “the inevitable outcome of all experience,” the past truly seems especially irretrievable, and its passage irreversible, in the supersession of the blossoms and poppies of the former Field of Dreams.  For although many investors have recast themselves as stewards of clean technologies, and Silicon Valley is a decisive global center of clean tech, from wastewater to manufacturing, the conceit that memory of the distant past remains the greatest illusion of all in Sonnabend’s concept “obliscence” seems especially to hold for the landscapes of Silicon Valley:  and their past to have receded furthest from the maps that we makes of the same region to day to the extent that it takes a huge force of remembering to imagine what its past landscape consisted of apricots, plums, cherries, poppies and flowering trees.




SOuth Bay SF BAYSan Jose Public Library (c. 1872)


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASettlement of Silicon Valley (from Alum Rock, 2004)–Wikipedia


The repeopling of Silicon Valley transformed is small community of rich ranchos in the region that bordered San Francisco Bay, nourished by streams and open estuaries, to obsolescence.  Their clear lines of property ownership were dissolved by the corporate heterotopia of proliferating poured concrete buildings that have replaced, and been superimposed across, the land in ways that opened its fruit-growing trees to colonization and suburban sprawl.


Rancho del RefugioCalisphere/San Jose Historical Society


Rather than receding into the past in the manner of other regions across America, the region of Silicon Valley has strikingly changed from a regularly mapped set of Ranchos as the Rancho del Refugio/Pastoria de las Borregas to a landscape that, definitively, can’t be clearly mapped because its corporate population is ever-growing and ever-fertile.  “High energy people blossom in this industry,” boasted a manager at Intel as he relaxed in his indoor hot tub in 1982, perhaps unconsciously appropriating an agricultural metaphor to describe the ethos of an industrial environment.

Can it be mapped?  The very illusions of objectivity, control, and fixity are least apt to imagine across SiliconValley, where one can best map fixity in terms of motion, transit, and expansion, and might better map without imagining fixed boundaries or centers, but view cohesiveness by valuation, salaries, or broadband access, the disappearance of greenspace, the commute-space, or even, and, perhaps most definitively, the production of toxic waste.  But if the microchip first promised to redefine the region as a site where one could declare the “future was here,” the growth of broadband and wifi across the region–then the current iteration and reminder that the region had arrived, the definition and preeminence of Silicon Valley as at the cutting edge, several steps ahead of the country, has managed to be maintained in ways that redefine the Valley beyond and as much more than a space or place.


16.  Despite the striking elasticity of the Valley as a work environment–its satellites have migrated to the East Bay, Marin, or Half Moon Bay, and the region may seem to be overtaken by San Francisco or China–the continued gravitational pull of this non-place without a clearly mappable center have persisted over forty years through at least four generations of entrepreneurs, from the manufacturers of silicon-chip microprocessors to the first software companies to the behemoths of globalization.  Rather than designate a specific place, the phenomenon of the proliferation of corporate campuses supported by capital investment recast the Valley as a quite surprisingly placed network of collaborators and capitalists that staked out the purported revolutionary nature of the enterprises they advanced.

The powerful myth of Silicon Valley seems closely linked to the capital it attracts as Appland, as much as the federal grants to Stanford University of the past. But the symbolic prominence Silicon Valley has assumed a site for arrival in the future–a vision that is  remarketed on HBO show attempts to narrate our unique relation to place–has demanded a constant remapping of the Valley as the site of future growth to maintain a place on the map that was impossible to find before the late 1980s.  The relatively small pond of coders who congregated between Mountain View, Milpitas and Palo Alto created a community that reshaped the fertile valley that, in the late twentieth century, eventually overshadowed the prominence of investment in transistors or semiconductors, or even the landscape that Netscape helped fashion after its initial foundation in 1995.  In this sense, Silicon Valley never existed as one place so much as it has become a search for the promise of integrating the open spaces of the internet that first appeared as real–or were first seen–by folks who worked in the Valley’s industries, or in the meet-ups that preceded the first IPO’s.  One of the clearest definitions of Silicon Valley as a region emerged with the attempt to define it as an early WiFi space.  In ways that definitively showcased its transformation from a center of manufacturing, linking the valley by wireless placed it in the future by imagining a network of communication that seemed open to all.  If the plastic bounds of the Valley as a place have nonetheless lead its boundaries to be redrawn almost an infinity of times over forty years, as folks have tried to identify the aura and energy of the Valley on a map, in attempts to describe what the Valley might be, or what would be needed to unmoor it from its setting.

And even if its bounds have been reconfigured and spread along regional highways to encompass San Francisco and the East Bay and reach south to Half Moon Bay, the network has particular symbolic staying power even after over forty years.  A new state in this elasticity began from 2006, in a sense, when what had long been a workplace site for semiconductors and became  the largest open regional wireless broadband network to offer internet access across nearly 1,500 square miles, creating an extra-urban collective showcasing Cisco’s umbrella wireless mesh network as its infrastructure–the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, privately built and operated by IBM, Cisco, Azulstar and SeaKay, created a prototype and illustration of a linkage and site-specific technology upgrade to which the world could aspire–as well as, if then unwittingly, a model of surveillance.   (Is it too much, in an era of the recent revelation of the mass-surveillance of internet communications, to imagine some sort of early realization of the broad opportunities for the back-door interception of signals that a single broadband network could provide?)  The self-described epicenter of innovation united the largest regional wifi of its time both as its own advertisement, and in a manner that no other collective had previously done–and which still provides an unreachable ideal for most nation-states, that effectively remapped its own inter-relationships, by 2008 imagined to comprehend thirty-seven cities in what seems a new means to map both economic territoriality and insularity:





The coherence within the same area of wireless access still stands in sharp contrast to the uneven access to Broadband available nationwide by 2011, according to the National Broadband Map, although much of the rest of the United States seems to have caught up to the Bay Area:


Broadband Map 2011


The spread of a fiber-optic networks across the Bay Area have hugely facilitated the growth of the Valley outside the topographic contours of the past, allowing it to realize new hubs in a more mobile–yet still strikingly concentrated–manner across the Bay in ways that expand the more limited mesh network of 2006, and allow rewriting a ground plan for future corporate expansion on fiber pipelines across county and municipal lines:


FIber Optic Map


The effects of creating cohesiveness across Silicon Valley’s penumbra have been rapid.  It is striking is that by 2013, software developers were both better-paid and more sought after in and around San Jose, where a premium seems to be placed on specific skills and programming languages that are more sought after than elsewhere in the country–defining a unique labor market in itself for software developers in a surprisingly dense geographic location–garnering them salaries of over 130,000, some $4,000 over the national average.


software developer salary map


The above visualization of recent salaries of software developers attests as well as anything to the continued prominence of the Valley in the national economy.  But “Silicon Valley” emerged as a numinous a network of start-ups from the 1970s, and the term gained wide currency out of digerati in the 1980s–shortly before I moved to California, when the campuses of Xerox and IBM dominated the scene with Microsoft, and Google was yet to be born out of the dream of a universal digital library out of the World Wide Web.  The density of software developers’ salaries came to define the Valley as a place, but it was always linked to the topic idea of defying geographic specificity, as is often observed, and a truly utopic place, linked to industry, but unmoored from a geographic setting to present itself as a state of synergy; if Silicon Valley was closely tied to Stanford University, the very placelessness of the Valley has both led it to be imagined to be replicated (in New York, Berlin, Boston Ireland, etc.), and to be a network, or space, rather than being geographically defined, despite its resemblance to a toponym, and the continued status that it has enjoyed as an enduring epicenter of venture capital and patent applications.  Of 141 global internet corporations valued above $1 billion, whose global reach suggest the apparent limited relevance of geography to the the internet start-ups–a preponderance continue to be located in a restricted area on the peninsula or near the Valley.




“‘We value your work-life balance, you know, the calibration between your online life here at the company and outside it.  I hope that’s clear.  Is it?”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle

17.  The surprisingly local concentration of founding software companies in sectors from gaming, security, commerce, social networking, or gaming of billion-dollar valuation was mapped by Atomico, using markers of place to designate blossoming of billion-dollar valuations by dots of differently colors that suggest the site’s continued fertility for different portfolios, casting the region as a site that proliferates portals to online platforms.  If Silicon Valley is not bounded, its evanescent contours match the basis of many in the perpetual obsolescence in an economy of platforms needing to be nourished by continued updating, even if many make the majority of revenues from tried-and-true tactics such as advertisement, taking cuts, and client services:


founded since 2003 billion dollar + software




















Veeva in Pleasonton 2007


Air BnB

Yammer 2008Dropbox 20007


Horton Works PA 2011

Dropbox 20007Square 2009





Instagram 2010Atomico


A comprehensive “Geography of Start-Ups” might be rendered as follows to pose questions about the geography of programming taken that go beyond the pithy statement that “something is in the air” or “location matters” to decipher some of the reasons why physical proximity was facilitated by wiring and by offering both advice and stealing possible future employees from one another in a relatively small but well-fed pool:  corporations are cluster in the map designed at the Economist in regions, erasing all specific toponymy in a landscape of giants of the net economy:




The rage of start-ups remap the region of Silicon Valley as a new insider culture.  It is hard to map what it is like to work at one of these companies, or to describe it as a new geography of work when its expansion seems so relentless.

The illusion that Silicon Valley is a center of a specific cluster of open web-based industry conceals the fact that the economies of many are based in traditional forms of revenues, though linked to user experiences on interactive platforms.  Indeed, the prominence of “user experience” as a category of specialization–and indeed, of work–captures the truly heterotopic nature of Silicon Valley.  The proliferation of a number of diverse internet platforms that seem to have bloomed spontaneously in a landscaped marked by an identical coastal configuration in the above visualization of the international investment firm Atomico, an efflorescence of pastel dots suggest the diversity of services rather than designate their location, almost renders place irrelevant:  each platform provides services for sectors from finance, social media, e-commerce, gaming, enterprise apps, enterprise data, travel, transport, security and much more.  Although the uniqueness of the region has been identified as lying in its “flexible spaces of interaction” on an (sub)urban periphery, it seems to have become its own center for the swarming of capital that cannot be reduced to lifestyle alone, but a density of entrepreneurial investment that was so clustered in the Santa Clara Valley.

That such multiple global platforms originate in the same place reveals something of an inner contradiction demanding to be explained, beyond blandly essentializing it as a landscape of innovation–if only since it is remarkable that this network remains so very rooted in space, and closely located to capital as well as government initiatives that could serve as a possible business model. The persistence of this sense of geographic rootedness may derive from the early establishment of a “trading zone” within a market between entrepreneurial investors and software engineers, that nourished modes of net-based interaction have both developed and been cultivated in ways that are more accepted and recognized than other parts of the world.  The global expansion of Silicon Valley has, if nothing else, added a further wrinkle to the displacement of the Valley as a privileged center of software industries.  Indeed, recent maps of the Valley seem to try to imagine and fix the global economy in its growing space, as if to explicitly picture the Valley as a microcosm of a globalized economy.

The link of a geographic site to such multiple web-based platforms in one geographic area may seem something of a surprise, if only because of its staying power.  Despite the apparent competition from overseas or elsewhere, the proliferation of so concentrated a cluster of software-related corporations valued over $1 billion specific to one geographic region of the United States not only creates a real economic inequality, difficult to explain within the forces of globalization the software industry itself promotes, but confirms the image and expectations of “Silicon Valley” as a place; the influx of capital into a surprisingly non-urban area has promoted investigation of its defining characteristics as allowing a mobility of work, whose holding power almost seems to attract its own inflow of intellectual capital, as well as start-up funds.  Of 137 companies world wide, the highest number of billion dollar startups came to be concentrated in San Francisco or San Jose, providing the household words of a global economy.

The proliferation across the peninsula of a network of industry reveals the resilience of a geography over forty plus years, from transistors to micro-processors to software worlds, tied perhaps to a local culture of its fertility–not agricultural, but metaphorical and man-made.  Although never able to be clearly bounded on a map, despite attempts to locate its center or expansion in wall calendars or corporate clubs, and the deep demand to orient oneself to its changing topography.  (If, as the journalist Alexis Madrigal, recently relocated to report on the Valley for Fusion, has observed, “Silicon Valley has been marketing speak from the jump” its robust sense of placelessness seems to speak volumes to the flexibility with which it more approximates mental spaces than it encompasses territory, defining the shifting parameters for a market for specific sorts of expertise as well as inflated salaries.)  The boundaries of the Valley are mapped in vain, at the same time as we struggle to arrive at a reason for the specific clusterings of companies as if it was indeed a place that had the status of the cities, suburbs, regions or counties at which we arrive with help from a highway map; we map and remap to orient ourselves to the incredible economic expansion there, and the implied fecundity of the name “Valley” sticks, since it captures the difficulty of defining the “place” or bounding what seems a conceptual space, but seems so hard to concretely represent, and perhaps exists more as a region the enjoys some privileged relation to an influx of capital than anywhere else on the map.  (There is something quixotic in the fact that this region introduced a whole new meaning for “search,” as well as, “history” compels us to search for it on a map with such limited success.)

We want to find it, since we want to go there, or partake of it however vicariously, even if we are related to watch T. J. Miller solicit coders on HBO.




That Silicon Valley is so problematically mapped and consistently re-mapped across forty-four years into the game reflects the particular holding power of this construct as a destination as a center of the semiconductor industry and an image of a center of innovation.  The construction of Silicon Valley as a destination exercised attraction due to the difficulty with which it can be made present for viewers in geographical terms–or indeed pinned down to a region, or a fixed center.  The superimposition of a yellow-line over a printed map nicely expresses the enduring sense of Silicon Valley as a network of freeways–now a network of commute, along the central vein of the 280 and bound by the 280, 880, and 680, and fed by US 101.

The mobile commute routes that have long distinguished the peninsula suggest the nature of the Valley as a space through which passes through immense numbers of cars, workers, capital, and parts–as well as one that launches platforms, software programs, and IPO’s.  (Needless to say, these networks of transit were not in place to ensure the diffusion of dried fruits:  they have grown to service what has become the most economically profitable region in the United States.)  The malleability of these boundaries are perhaps best illustrated by the expansion of its boundaries shifted from a region that radiated from Palo Alto, contained by the Bay and Santa Cruz mountains, in 2000, to encompass not only Santa Clara county and Cupertino but Fremont, Brisbane, Scotts Valley to the south, and South San Francisco and Half Moon Bay:  as the inter-related networks of the region expanded over the next ten years, the metaphorical “valley” extended far beyond the region–self-proclaimed futurologist Timothy C. Draper imagined it as encompassing land far beyond the bucolic county where it once lay, and even a fiscally separate state.




18.  The expansion of the “Valley” to a region that even itself contained the entire Bay Area, peninsula, and coast suggest the autonomy of the region from “California,” for Draper, but also the expansion of the network to instantiation by the map, was something of a hope for its future expansion, and the ultimate statement of the difficulty of identifying its now-global reach, most evident in its high prices of renting square footage–now more densely focussed around Palo Alto, but still also considerable in San Jose–or triumphal maps of a tactile microcosm of globalization that have made it a magnet for investment and jobs.  Indeed, the echoes of rising real estate costs have now driven up the market throughout much of Oakland, Berkeley, and South San Francisco, as the Valley has steadily, intrepidly progressed up to the North Bay.




To be sure, the distortions on the Valley have been widely noted as a result of the gentrification of the Valley on account of receiving such a local injection of disproportionate incomes in recent years, to make it prohibitively unaffordable to live in the directly adjoining towns in the peninsula or South Bay:


screen shot 2014-01-17 at 9-2.14.13 am.pngKwelia


even as rentals near the Valley are wildly distorted by its presence:

Rental Price: Sq FtKwelia


The growth of Silicon Valley attested to on pictorial maps used as conspicuous objects of display and a corporate directory of the region suggest its ever-changing boundaries and constantly expanding frontiers.  Indeed, while in 2012 the Valley was imagined as mostly in the South Bay,

BayArea_SiliconValley 2012


the Valley seems to have effectively moved far further north in recent years, rather than migrated, or being “challenged” by the San Francisco and Oakland.


“‘Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively.'”

–Dave Eggers, The Circle

“It took a day or so to get used to, seeing so many people nodding so frequently–and with varying styles, some with sudden birdlike jerks, others more fluidly–but soon it was as normal as the rest of their routines . . . “

–Dave Eggers, The Circle

19.  Silicon Valley’s expansion has been sustained by a corporate swarming of tech industry, whose unreal success obliterates the “Valley” as a place.   The density of the proliferation of industry across the region was soon such that the crowding of corporate logos dominated the landscape in a cornucopia of corporate presence that has altered the once-bucolic landscape of the Bay Area:




What seems to remain its epicenter has been now rendered illegible toponyms, truly erasing any information by directing attention to its true sources of capital investment and new competitors for attention beside the oldest producers of electronics:


Map Silicon Valley


The corporate density was briefly–if unsuccessfully–taken as a target of attack of the Occupy movement:




But the pictorial map of corporate blossoming is more the cherished icon of a modern fertility cult, although it has echoes of one.  Such much-recycled and enriched projections of the Valley’s corporate landscape depicts a transparently triumphal vision of corporate colonization almost seems to consciously be displacing an area once filled by orchards.  The image of a naturalization of tech abundance, if long ironic, has perhaps led to a new self-knowledge of the malleability of place–despite the continued hold of the region in our nation’s economy.  The multiplicity of its centers has created a challenge of orienting oneself to an extra-urban spread of corporate campuses on arterials, extra-urban or urban rim–removed from San Francisco, on the horizon, or Oakland, whose freeways seem to have themselves pushed back the receding hills of green in the below pictorial map, which magnifies the valley as a network spilling beyond its origins to the South Bay, to Scotts Valley and Cupertino but also Concord or Marin.




For “Silicon Valley,” even some forty-five years after its first naming, remains a quintessential conflation of nature and culture (and of nature and commerce, or orchards and transistors).

Since its coinage at the start of the 1970s, in a rare moment of optimism preceding the political “nervous breakdown” of 1973, suggested a marketer’s promise to sell its wares, the application of a metaphor of agricultural abundance  to the center of semiconductors seems the industry misleading.  If the term was diffused by Don C. Hoefler to describe the dense local proliferation of silicon computer-chip industries around Santa Clara Valley, probably first overheard the term when it was first bandied by industry sales’ forces:  it gained appeal as the oxymoron that designated the first hot-bed of synergy that would hatch the golden egg, leading Hoefler to employ it as the name of his column (“Silicon Valley USA”) that concretized a set of commercial practices and industrial values in the area around Stanford Research Park, where venture capitalism exploded after 1980:  “Silicon Valley” became a symbol of the Steinbeckian wealth of the new produce that outshone the Central Valley, as what had been the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight” ceased being only a landscape, but carried the new hopes for California in ways that conjured a new Gold Rush, even before microprocessors were made, and a suburb entered the internet before the rest of the world, and arcade games constituted real work, and the World Wide Web a form of ecstatic liberation and a space of collaboration that mapped loosely onto the region’s geography, but which has now become the territory of the net’s globalization–if one that was never that diverse, and where more “lip-service” was paid to diversity than institutional changes, in the words of the CEO of the Palo Alto-based non-profit that promotes the remediation of the gender imbalances in tech, the Anita Borg Institute.


20.  The landscape is of course, anything but the verdant Santa Clara valley of the past.  In fact, what the Valley was is in danger of disappearance–although the somewhat convenient creation of a protected “Green Belt” around its system of freeways, almost identical with the changing topographies of the surrounding hills, seems to guarantee only several specific redoubts of green:


Santa Clara County Greenbelt


These “remnants of the Valley” suggest an expulsion of most protected areas, however, far outside of the fertile Valley once linked to agrarian dreams, and now more likely to be preserves near wealthy suburbs or country estates.

One might note that the amazing concentration of capital incongruously allows the persistence, amidst such suburban sprawl, by the proliferation of the illusion of often year-round access to nearby farms–although these are few and far between in the Santa Clara Valley itself, despite the flourishing of local Farmers’ Markets there as a sort of micro-economy of the well-fed:




But even though we like to map the region by its dark and light kelly greens, is the area still so pristine as the bucolic baggage of its name suggests?  The  blend of marketing and optimism at the origins of its the curious coinage, now marking its 44th anniversary, caught like fire by word of mouth.  After it made its debut in Electronic News of Jan 11, 1971, it introduced a destination, long after the first work on silicon device manufacturing in the region in 1958, just outside Palo Alto, to which one could arrive, and created something of a market for work in itself, and which he popularized through his.  The story goes that Hoefler lit up when he first heard the term over lunch in San Francisco as it was mentioned by some marketing guys as a term bandied around in the office, and the term coined by the sales team in the semiconductor industry grew into an actual place that Hoefler happily termed “Silicon Valley, U.S.A.” for its commercial fecundity, as microprocessor manufacturers slowly started to line its roads. Since then, the moniker has readily migrated out of newsprint to highway signs . . . as if to meet the demand that we know we have truly arrived.





The region’s identification as a destination and critical mass of microprocessors grew around the transistor, and only later the silicon chip, but remained a center of innovation, cross-pollination, and an ideal for how possible future centers of technology might work to foster the somewhat “serendipitous synergies” of a supply of cutting-edge computer knowledge, design, and a culture of open-ness–although the tradition of the US government investing so extensively in R&D activities and firms in Palo Alto made it a unique setting for collaboration difficult to recreate, even among the networked set–and as difficult to attract funding.


tech city


Silicon Valley it has, of course, as a place of opportunity and progress also become a mythological place in our sense of the global imaginary–as an area bursting with IPO’s, venture capital investment, and risk-taking, nourished by a web of freeways that transported networked workers from nearby cities.


Yet the image of the bucolic nature of the “Valley” as a nourishing site for corporate growth, entrepreneurship, and the needed venture capital provided a nice manner not only to orient oneself to a growth of tech firms in the region but to illustrate one’s own place in the proliferation of firms in an area where gentile ballooning seems still the motif, and the greenery of the landscape a continued metaphor for economic flourishing and a narrative of economic opulence.  Even as the Valley seems to be challenged by San Francisco, the elasticity of cartographical formats allows it to be pictured no longer as concentrated around Palo Alto and San Jose, but stretching northwards to the now-greener hills of the East Bay and Marin.


SV14_Lrg.inddSilicon Maps


The 2014 mapping of the icons of corporations that have colonized the what was once a Valley of fruit trees between Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and San Jose suggests a critical mass of corporate intermingling and synergy south of San Francisco, depicted in ways that continue to echo the bucolic tones of its first coinage–and if long seen as an outgrowth that ramified from Stanford University, what was once a “valley” has spread across much of the Bay Area and South Bay, so that, in this pro-corporate prospective map from Silicon Maps, trademarks threaten to overwhelm toponymy– in ways that makes one wonder whose interests the map actually articulates, and what the dissonance might exist between the advance of trademarks and the all-so-green topography of the region.  The swarming of tech, however, seems to know no clear bounds, and we are poised to open up Concord, Sacramento, and Marin to the expanding corporate space.


Silcon Maps #1Silicon Maps


The map tells a story that is reliably upbeat and optimistic, inflated by venture capital, and captures the image of the plenty of produce emerging from fertile ground in the former Santa Clara Valley to foster all of the 87,000 companies that have settled or been fostered there; the now largely figuratively verdant terrain is a dominant metaphor that this pictorial map of the region sets forth–even if trademarks come to crowd out whatever is left of the surrounding green as one moves south to its historic constellation of Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, and Mountain View.


Map Silicon ValleySilicon Maps


Of course, the story that the map tells to viewers conceals a valley of manufacturing now vanished or almost gone:  the industrial campuses that fill the landscape were built atop the original boom towns, now eclipsed by the trademarks of globalization that litter the lawns:  this past industrial landscape, before microprocessors were all made abroad, was a rich center of manufacturing jobs, we often forget, as well as agricultural jobs that coexisted cheek by jowl, all fed by the sunlight of Sunnyvale, if it is now filled by superfund sites created by the storage tanks that were built, from 1981, to store the waste of the semiconductor plants which are the best evidence of the production of the past.  These buried footsteps of the toxic deposits of Superfund sites is concealed by the pollution-free concentration of industries it presents.


21.  The dense tangle of industries that are the landscape of Silicon Valley, free from industrial waste, has settled a still-green expanse, which seems to prove the continuity of the metaphorical construction of an ever-fertile region, now pushing forty years.   The heart of the corporate flourishing of Valley lay in the incongruous appropriation of a term for the acreage that was once dedicated to fruit trees, to be sure, along the freeways that encircles Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale, where microprocessors have replaced transistors as the currency of choice, feeding off of the circulation of employees–and its venture fund backers–the region attracts, for industries that seem embedded cheek by jowl in its fertile landscape, as if in a techno-garden glorying in joyous masking of the complex contradictions of a radically re-written landscape where workers arrive daily along paved arterials from increasingly lengthy commutes.


Heart of the Valley?Silicon Maps


To be sure, the flourishing of corporate America by streams of venture capitalism in the meadows of Silicon Valley was never for all–back in 1982, the residents of Black, Hispanic, and Vietnamese who lived in East Palo Alto and worked on the assembly lines of Apple Computer and others were barely touched by its wealth, even if they were attracted by its dream.

Of course, as much as the map sustains the metaphor to imply that the blossoming of fruit is indigenous to the place, as Bloomberg Businessweek has helpfully revealed, in something of a counter-map of place based on the American Community Survey from 2008-12, the actual origins of its workers–predominantly from Mexico–that keep the chips whirring, and microprocessors on the move, and that announces it as a destination.  For all the recent discussion of the predominantly caucasian tech firms based in the Valley–if some 83% of tech jobs at Google’s workforce in the Valley were held by men, 93% of those workers were white or Asian, while true that more lip service is paid to diversity than programs for change, it is striking that of the influx of residents into the region, a relatively large number of folks speak a language other than or in addition to English at home.  Since 2010, a majority of the tech workforce has been Asian Americans, among whom migration to the valley has continued to grow even during economic downturns, in ways that compel mapping as a skewed sort of microcosm of globalization, as well as of the United States–a microcosm that reveals the profoundly transient nature of a region bound by highways, which seems more an icon of social and geographic mobility than a geographic place.  The aggregate workforce that reveals marked actual geographical diversity densely packed peninsula–the leading companies in the tech sector are rarely diverse, and despite net migration, and the insularity Valley seems something like the reverse of a melting pot:  it is a site where folks arrive on well-worn paths, and which the range of geographic birth-places cannot conceal the fact that it hires the folks it knows best.


gt_backpage_970Bloomberg Businessweek


The big draw to the valley from over 6,000 miles away speaks volume to the value that its industry places on specific expertise, and its prominence in an international marketplace who often receive work H1 visas because of their corporate desirability.  And one can imagine the nearly identical pathways for their arrival:


SIlicon Draw, bigger

It’s easy to compare this map to the density of corporations that the fill–whose names seem to drown out the actual place-names of the region.

Does the burgeoning of an apparent plurality of logos conceal the pretty uniform nature of its residents?  The trademarks make up the valley as a place that is not even rooted in space-time, and removed from local roots, so much that one might almost miss the toponyms that indicated the old centers of manufacturing that filled the valley not long ago.  Now, if conjoined to the name of the local branch of Carnegie Mellon, globalized corporations colonize the face of the local map–making it a true artifact of the global that compels one to try to imagine a time-lapse graphic of corporate settlement across the region over forty years, as Microsoft appeared, Google was born, and LinkedIn emerged, replacing Raytheon, Advanced Micro Devices, and Fairchild Semiconductors, and leaving Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Varian Associates as less prominent parts of its topography, while prominently placing the logos of global companies–LinkedIn; Microsoft; Google–in its stead as the prominent pit stops along the freeways that commuting workers move.


betwixt palo alto and synnyvaleSilicon Maps


The costs of the swarming of innovation lies underneath the verdant landscape of the Silicon Valley superconductor industry.  Even as the connotations of the region’s historical fertility metonymically survive in our collective imagination, the seeds were planted for the expansion of the region’s sites of toxic waste–and indeed the work in a number of carcinogenic metals and chemicals created one of the largest clean-up sites in California, reviewing a state-wide survey of Superfund sites.





Stanford University commissioned one early map of the many contaminated “hot spots” across the Valley,  which might best define the region’s coherence by some measures, in 2004–long before it was suspected to in fact be “home to one of the nation’s heaviest concentrations of toxic-waste sites,” but around the time that local residents began to first complain of respiratory problems.  Local clean-ups, already paid for in the first decade of this century by chip corporations from Intel to Applied Materials Inc. to Advanced Micro Devices, stand to define the region since its time as a center for the fabrication of transistors, and contains deposits of toxic waste from as early as 1956, even if violations for unauthorized storage of waste only emerged recently.


toxic_sites_map_300wSmall World Maps


Is this legacy another sense of defining the efflorescence of industries in the Valley–and did the established practices for under-the-radar concealment of wastes indeed provide a rationale for the explosion of microchip processing in a region where the EPA could stand to turn the other cheek?  Whatever the reason, the swarming of industrial manufacture to the Valley, if erroneously linked to labor practices, has left a clear record of its material substrate in the number of Superfund sites that still swarm around the South Bay, where individual clean-up costs of up to $5 million are now regularly declared to be “bad chapters,” but might prove to be the norm.  (And even when “cleaned up,” to be sure, entails a shell-game of moving it from Mountain View to be treated and burned in less-populated and far less affluent regions in Oklahoma or Arizona, often discharging toxic wastes and still more harmful chemicals on Native American reservations.

Notwithstanding the verdant foliage that crowds the landscape mapped by Silicon Maps to present a mirror of prosperity, evidence of those underground storage tanks old manufacturers left in the region, it’s well known, are not only concentrated in Santa Clara County, but regularly continue to leak and leach into the water and ground around them–the concentration of Superfund sites in Santa Clara county is far greater than any US county.  Their toxic legacy signals not only a return of the repressed of the costs of hiding pollution that old manufacturing plants, long abandoned, have left along its major thoroughfares from Sunnyvale–epicenter of the “old” Silicon Valley–to San Jose, but a boondoggle of its own.  For concealed far deep beneath the illusorily pristine nature of those firms that provided microprocessors–prohibited from revealing smokestacks, ducts, or waste–were left deposits in storage tanks that are destined to crack with time, as if the forgotten footprints of the powerful corporations who walked the streets.  The map emerged at about the same time that Alexis Madrigal came across a collation of corporate headquarters that crowded the Valley already in 1983–“Rich’s Guide to Santa Clara County’s Silicon Valley”–which he mapped against the twenty-three Superfund sites across Silicon Valley:  if the toxic plumes are now under control in the Valley, and chip-making a thing of the distant past, it remains a notable shock that manufacturing continues to provide some 20% of the region’s jobs, a concentration which stands out for regions outside of major metro regions, and seems to be growing from San Jose to Livermore and as stable as it’s been for the past decade.

Yet it is not clear how long this can last.  The recent discovery of a hazardous discharge of a solvent used in making chips, trichloroethylene, or TCE, of 7.8 micrograms per cubic meter, that exceeded the 5 microgram EPA safety levels within air vents at a Google satellite campus employing a thousand workers in 2013 seems an unwanted inheritance from buildings of Intel, Raytheon, and Fairchild Semiconductor on the same area.


superfundsites_dotspottingPaul Mison/Stamen


Promoting itself as a land of verdant fertility continues to serve to conceal the multiple sites of waste storage that are in danger of being released in the soil and groundwater that seeps into indoor industrial spaces and the grassed over lands of somewhat bucolic corporate campuses, is indeed an odd wrinkle in corporate time.  Indeed, it seems necessary to have recently introduced one of the largest and most advanced state-of-the-art water purification plants in the Santa Clara Valley Regional Wastewater Facility, employing microfiltration, reverse-osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection at a cost of $72 million, funded both by the water district and City of San Jose, as well as $8 million from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

As if tracks in the La Brea tar pits, the Superfund sites of Silicon Valley, mapped by Paul Misonon Stamen tiles, reveal the residue of manufacturing that was so long concealed by the appearance of box-like structures and manicured lawns, which were mandated to conceal the waste they generated–although the density of these twenty-three footprints of toxic underground pollution were long known to the EPA–as were the nineteen left by tech firms and their manufacturing, largely of site scores of thirty to thirty-five, save Advanced Micro Devices in Sunnyvale (37.93) and Fairchild Microconductors in South San Jose (44.46).




The toxic not-so-past of Silicon Valley offers a map of the former manufacturing industry that the current industrial giants do well to hide in their maps.  But it comes up pretty prominently in the distribution of Superfund sites in the state, as the only continuous stretch of red, rivaling the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys in its toxicity, in a clustering that one might do well to meditate on again and hold before one’s mind while buying local real estate.

To be sure, in recent years, the local presence of pollution has shifted from underground to the air in ways increasingly evident in recent years in the air overhead in the Valley, where a spate of perpetual highway expansion has been added to accommodate commuters–without reducing traffic congestion, but only feeding haze of traffic jams, fed by the interminable commute from outlying areas where one could most readily afford rent in 2012.


kwelia_apartment_rents-300x231Kwelia (2012)




Questions of how to move around this tech-induced suburban spread of rim cities has led Lyft to introduce a satellite of ride-sharing into Silicon Valley, extending its service much further south, even as it balks for now at offering rides along the commuter corridor from the Valley to San Francisco.





22.  All of which makes important to reiterate the difficulty of mapping Silicon Valley with fixed bounds–save in a numinous way and as a true heterotopia of commuting capital and workers.  For the way that capital, entrepreneurship, and innovation have swarmed to the valley in clustered corporate campuses, each defining itself by its own platforms and in buildings that stand as if apart from the world, has produced a second-swarming of commuters and commute buses, as if in a third dimension of the heterotopic expansion of Silicon Valley as a Valley of Dreams.  Indeed, the difficult to detect costs of its ongoing environmental impact can now best be read by the swarming of commuters who stream into the South Bay, and across the peninsula, despite the earnest attempts of its bicycle coalition to reclaim alternate modes of commuting on El Camino Real–the only mode of transit that connects Daly City in San Francisco to San Jose that is not a highway.

While such new modes of connecting the multiple communities that exist in Silicon Valley suggest a new perpetuation of the utopic vision of the Valley as a site of innovation and growth–and indeed link the vision of innovation to the welcoming of eco-friendly transport, the hopes to introduce a new infrastructure of bike boulevards seems more successful at getting kids to ride bicycles to schools than workers to rethink their commutes.  In part, this is due to the distance that commuters’ travel demands.  It’s possible to map the network as a convergence of freeways that have become massively expanding commute roads to scratch beneath the surface of an encomiastic map that privileged the industrial icons of the area, but renders the pressures of commuting to sites of startups on Google Maps that describe the reality of swarming commuters take daily on eight freeway’s paved roads–the network that primarily defines Silicon Valley for most.


screen map

The Valley might well be seen in recent years, as a network of freeways engorged by traffic jams, englobing a bit of green that survives around San Francisco Bay.  The built environment created around the coursing freeways between Milpitas and Los Gatos that have pushed the forests and green lands out to the margins of the Sunol Regional Wilderness or Henry Coe State Park, which are able to be protected as they lie outside the lines of commute that serve as Silicon Valley’s true bloodlines of vital nourishment:


built enviroGoogle Maps


The displacement of much industry to San Francisco has led, to be sure, to an expansion of the WiFi buses that the giants of the Valley have offered their workers as a means to lure them to their campuses at low cost, in buses that promise to create mobile workspaces that make the commute apparently instantaneous, since they guarantee a workplace environment as soon as one steps aboard:


stamen-techbus1-bernal wood


The need to expand new avenues of public transit, as BART, to San Jose or the Valley seem, for now, on hold, unless we want to continue to test the synapses and alternate routes for workers, undoubtedly driving with smart phones wired to their ears or on speaker phone, to improvise expeditious routes down the peninsula or through Fremont and Foster City, hoping to arrive in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto by a curtailed commute.

Of course, the problems of the commute depend on time, and increasing amount of time that is consumed in inbound commute hours to the Valley among a demographic not so habituated to long commutes.  This is most nicely envisioned as an increase in commute traffic just last year, according to a 2014 report by research firm Inrix, in which San Jose suddenly rose four levels to the seventh worst commute city in the nation from 2012, with drivers losing some 35 hours weekly, and Palo Alto showing the worst inbound commute and job-to-residence imbalance, aside from San Francisco, despite the construction of increased traffic lanes in recent years that were built at considerable expense to accommodate the number of commuters:


Average Inboudn CommuteInrix


In ways that can also be read in a dynamic map of the best and worst commute times in clickable form, the map offers a new sense of the topography of traffic that has grown congested around the space, erasing its bucolic connotations, and even suggesting high commute times from residential areas of those earning six figure salaries, creating an odd sociological profile of high commute times.  When one focusses in upon this landscape of commuter times, and maps either inbound commute times or those times greater than 45 minutes, the definition of the valley’s topography of traffic best emerges above San Jose, focussed in  residential regions Sunnyvale and around Palo Alto:


Time:Inbound CommuteInrix


% greater than 45 minsInrix


Mapped in a closer record of minutes of inbound and outbound commutes, suggests the degree of congestion by locally ranking commutes in static form–and making the problem of finding residences in nearby regions all too evident:


Commutes Ranked in Map


The explanations of the expansion of commuting distances along a formerly suburban expanse appears partly due to the low-density housing of the same area, to be sure.  But it is also true that most of such residences are quite prohibitive to relocate to, and in an era when all are consulting Redfin and Zillow maps, mapping costs of property against costs of commutes in a calculus of expenditures, school districts, and acreage, the twenty-five minute commute from Scotts Valley seems quite a good deal indeed. This makes commuting to Silicon Valley much better understood not only a choice of lifestyle but economic reality with the Bay Area-wide escalation of the valuation of potential sites of residence.  As more high salaried workers are attracted to the region, the expansion of housing costs throughout the Bay Area has been rapid, and the escalation of costs of Bay Area homes no bubble.







The normalization of expanding commute-times, in line with those across the country, seems increasingly tied to the imbalance between jobs and housing costs, already apparent from 2007, the valuation of homes above $600,000 had already expanded throughout most of the formerly small towns of the Bay Area.


Price Homes 2007


–an imbalance which revealed in even greater starkness in the 2014 Kwelia maps of median income across much of the greater Bay Area, and the huge spikes of real estate values in Palo Alto and Milpitas.


screen shot 2014-01-17 at 9.14.13 am.png




Is one consequence not a massively toxic release of carbon dioxide due to transport across the region that endangers its day-to-day air quality?




The metric tons of CO2 generated from commuting as far back as 2009 already created an image of dense pockets of commuting, even despite the existence of other options of public transit.  Predictably, the amount of time spent in automotive transit per household overall most rapidly escalated from the Oakland Hills to the South Bay and Santa Clara County–due to lack of access to public transit, as well as greater disposable income.


lem--sf-vmt-Victoria Transport Policy Institute


The foregrounding of transit options in the recent New Places, New Choices report has emphasized the benefits of urban lifestyles.  But with workers often pushed out by the distorted real estate prices–here mapped in terms of median incomes–one result of further commute distances is that congestion is even harder to escape.  The below maps the extent to which the Valley not only devours ground-space, attracting a groundswell of workers to the Valley of Dreams, but sucks cars down to central San Jose at clogged times of commute, creating crowded freeways where commutes devour a week of peoples’ lives each year.


Inbound > 45 minutesInfix


The concentration of the 23% rise in traffic showed pronounced congestion across the southern peninsula.




Of course, the dynamic of the commute is less tangible in the map of the San Jose’s Chamber of Commerce of the golden region spreading southwards from San Jose over what was once agricultural lands, as they’ve adopted the term that Hoefler first used in his now-historic 1971 column in Electronic News.





23.   All too often, we’re tempted to see the disconnected dots of hubs of the global computing industry as a specific market for software engineers not only as providing a basis of the continued relevance of geography to the internet economy, but how the internet economy is revolutionizing the ground.


silicon_valley_bigTim Lee


If there is any irony in mapping the residues of waste left by this concentration of corporations, this seems multiplied by mapping the probability that rising waters of global warming threaten their future leakage into  the grounds of such desirable real estate.  For despite the current appearance that a tech-centered gravitational pull with which it continues to draw folks to work is likely to continue to endure, the apparent inevitability of those upright pushpins may be erased by the coming rise of ocean waters over the many of the same corporate campuses that ring the bay, which, built along the South Bay, seem particularly exposed to the danger of sea-level rise, so tightly clustered are they along a shoreline of particularly low elevation.   If we allow ourselves to map the threatened rise of ocean-level based on current climatological predictions we can staggeringly map many of the largest players of the “Valley”–Intuit, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Dell, Cisco, Citrix, Motorola . . .–as lying geographically underwater in coming years.


Flood Risk and Sea Level Rise

Unless the Valley can, through the increasing integration of cross-platform technologies,  make the world a better place purely through cloud-based platforms instead of a land-based workplace?  What would happen if all the ample expanse of App-land, no longer protected from the rising San Francisco Bay, were to disappear?  The erasure by the bay’s waters seems not only an apt elemental revenge of global warming, but a fitting end of how a non-place might disappear.


6_16_14_NewAmericaMedia_SanFranSkylinejeanbaptiste chaput/flickr

Leave a comment

Filed under Bay Area, California History, High Tech, Northern California, San Jose, Silicon Valley

Hearing Through Maps: Mapping London’s Hidden Waterways

We see through maps, Denis Wood has argued, to find the “human landscape” that lies superimposed upon the land, and uncover the ways that the landscape has been changed–and how we can orient ourselves to those changes–based on the “huge arrogance” that “we can name and we can claim.”  Maps demand to be interpreted, and the task of their interpretation largely lies in uncovering how maps invite us to “see through them,” to explore the landscapes that lie underneath the layer of words that lies on their beckoning surfaces.  To take stock of how maps work by asking us to go about imagining the landscape that lies beneath those words is a way of uncovering their arguments about territories.

The linked map invites readers to explore its surface, in web-based maps of the London Sound Survey by using links to explore soundscapes that would otherwise lurk beneath cellulose surfaces.  Web-based maps such as Sound Survey of London’s waterways offer modes of remapping the known environment of the city:  and the choice to map the riverine network that is rarely seen in London by the conventions of Harry Beck‘s almost universally recognized diagram of its Underground.  The image offers an apt way to invite viewers to excavate audible aspects of the city absent from a drawn map:  if Beck’s map sanitized the subways in streamlined fashion to attract Londoners to the Underground, readers are asked to explore the waterways that emerge only in its parks, bridges, and channels linked to watery paths which we rarely see which run under and about its surface before they enter the central artery of the Thames.  Rather than by mapping the  city’s space in reference to its individual  streets or intersections, but by placing the rivers of the Survey maps waterways’ sounds in ways that recuperate their perhaps forgotten presence.  Wood remapped the lived community of Boylan Heights so that is not only as a place in Raleigh, North Carolina, but charting the “metabolism” of the community in maps of the light street lamps cast, lit jack o’ lanterns placed on porches at Halloween, paper routes Wood ran with a tightly knit cohort in his youth, or “squirrel highways” of arial wires, which collectively serve to unpack the often invisible ways of “how it works.”


Halloween in Boylston Heights


One might compare to this set of maps the ways in which maps in the London Sound Survey invites readers to enter an overpowering pointillist accumulation of local details, and similarly serve to map a setting in which everything sings–or at least we can enter its audible surface at distinct points.

The question of what axes indices and axes might be adopted to best orient readers to the ways that the place works are ingeniously organized by the Sound Survey through the colored lines and stops of the transit map that Harry Beck proposed for London’s Underground in 1931, a network-map whose revolutionary simplicity seems to have been devised when the draftsman in its Signal Office, Beck adopted paths of circuits to map the intersecting pathways of the Underground at a time when the city needed to encourage less traffic in its streets:  the powerful success of Beck’s map shifted Londoners’ attitudes to urban space.   A rewritten version of the familiar iconic network of the London Underground appropriately provides the syntax to uncover the hidden network of non-tidal streams, brooks, creeks, pools and channels that run, partly exposed, partly underground, around the river Thames.  Territories are less the question in the map of London’s waterways, which progress from trickling streams to waves slapping against the locks of the Thames.


Soundmap after Beck

London Sound Survey, Waterways 


In charting paths of the waterways that are so often hidden even to London’s own inhabitants, the map is particularly successful in charting the dissonance between the forms of symbolization and lived experience–and by doing so through the conventions we immediately recognize as indicating London.  While imitating or offering a cartographical homage to the Underground map, the surface of the map is punctuated with sonorous glimpses of the lived space of London today–offering actual stops where we can pause to hear a sound file of a minute or so of the water that trickles between it can be heard from the surface, in evanescent moments the symbology of the map cannot hope to record created by rivers, feeder streams or brooks, and canals.  Each “stop” is an observation station–to perceive or note the gurgling of a brook over a weir near Wimbledon or follow the course of the Brent through a culvert and along a viaduct, beside ambient noise of work, honking geese, and quacking ducks.  That the rivers don’t exist makes the map a recuperation of how London lives beside the water today, and to attune oneself to its changing  environment in which the tributaries of the Thames are more often trickles than rapidly flowing streams.  While dismembering Beck’s circuitry, the paths of rivers, streams, and waterways that flow into the Thames are something of a melancholy look at a world we have lost, but also a snapshot of their survival in an urbanized environment.

The cartographical poetics of the Sound Survey map are immediately recognizable.  By adapting the iconic conventions Harry Beck pioneered in his immensely popular modernist mapping of the circuits of metropolitan transit in his 1931 Underground map, the map needs no identification of where it is–London–and provides something of a counterfact of an image that today is separable from the city, despite its considerable influence as a model of mapping transit networks.  The map’s almost-universal influence on how metros are mapped in urban landscapes has not altered the distinctive iconography of the Underground map:  its conventions establish a quite different perspective than orienting readers to its built underground, however, as it used similar streamlined conventions and colored lines to trace the paths water takes in London’s built environment.  The conventions invite readers to explore the topography of where water rises to the surface of the urban space:  by clicking at the site of any “stop,” to link to audio clips along the indicated waterway, marked, as trains, by curving colored lines almost identical Beck used to diagram the city’s Underground–yet rather than create a unified network, they trace currents that flow into the Thames–the river that runs through London, and sole point of external reference in Beck’s now-classic modernist map of the London Underground.

Ian Rawes has long recorded London sounds to preserve its sensorial world; the map of waterways allows us to enter aural environments at parts of the city by a smattering of precise sensations of water passes whose collective accumulation overcomes its readers:  while mapped as if a site of imaginary metropolitan stops, the stops are in fact spots where waterways aside from the Thames are audible to city-dwellers, as if to synthesize insider’s knowledge how the urban space overlays an unseen web of currents, foregrounding them in ways that contrast to how Beck foregrounded the space of transit lines.


underground_map_beckHarry Beck’s original map of the London Underground (1936 version)


In the London Sound Survey map of urban waterways, each site places us at an observation station that allow us to revisit formerly overlooked spaces in the city, rarely mapped, and to allow its users to hear sounds of a watery web which one might have earlier recognized.  Each appears evanescent moments at scattered sites in the city, but reveals, as a sort of historical base-line, the levels at which water flows through multiple sites in the built environment.   Ian Rawes included over 1,500 discrete recordings in the London Sound Survey but in plotting the courses of the audibility of often-hidden waterways plots, the Survey organized what seem curiously subjective perspectives to map what can be heard at different sites in the space of a single map of the hidden streams that run through the metropolis; the act of apprehending the submerged underground network is pleasantly reorienting, focussing our attention on where they reappear and intersect with birdsong, dripping waters, passing individuals, or local sounds of construction and transport in the city:  the discrete sites assemble, collectively, both a map and an aural environment that most maps)cannot capture.  Each discrete sound seems impermanent, but  also suggests, collectively, the ways water briefly reappear in a built environment, as rivers, streams, and canals enter lived life in ways not detectable on an actual map. At each “stop,” we enter an observation-station where Rawes recorded the ambient sounds around waterways.


1.  The resulting mapping of the soundscape of London’s waterways offers a multiple points of entrances to soundscapes outside the city’s built environment. The permanence of the pathways of canals, rivers, and underground waterways rightly map of the sounds of the system of waterways as intersections with a riverine underground.   Explicitly designed as an “auditory tribute” or homage to the circuit-like color-coded design of Harry Beck’s modernist map which clarified complex pathways of the tube for commuters earlier only “about as legible as a bowl of spaghetti” for its riders.  Beck’s draftsmanship elegantly schematized the pathways of London’s Underground in a diagram whose legibility is an icon not only of urban transit but accessibility, but of the city itself:  at a time when the city’s subway had become so geographically far-flung to be a challenge to condense to a legible fashion, the map effectively persuaded commuters of the ease of navigating its totality, while living in its suburbs, by mapping the pathways of its trains by angles at increments of forty-five degrees to increase their legibility, and foregrounding its interchanges.

Ian Rawes cleverly adopted the diagram first designed to promote a readily legible record of commuter rail, by straightening out their course and contracting the distances at regular intervals to allow aural access to sound files through a web-based interfaces.   Whereas Beck’s intent was to expand the utility needed in a transit map for audiences in ways that riders to navigate its multiple lines that was readily appreciated by riders, Rawes’ map is an opportunity for noticing the overlooked, and invite them to follow the paths with which waterways intersect with other lived environments.  The cooing of pigeons and drips of water under the Greenway bridge at “Channelsea” off the Lea complements the hum of traffic overhead, as if an epiphany of the evanescent; the passing train near the Roding at “Alders Brook” suggests a moment watching passing urban traffic on a viaduct, as the trickle of water at “Paddington Basin”–not Paddington Station–almost concealed by the loud whirr of air-conditioning units and an intermittent power-saw from a nearby construction site.  The Brent flows under the observation station “Greenford Bridge” pierced by the referee’s whistle at an amateur football game mixed with players’ cries.  The registration of lived experience sets something of a watermark on the sounds of London circa 2012.

The physical expanse of Rawes’ aural map is an a propos homage Beck’s diagram.  The soundscape map reveals the similar permanence of overlooked waterways that link to the Thames.  By collating short sound-files at points where they emerge from the built environment, preserving a uniquely personal reaction to place of the sort that often eludes city maps.  Where Beck preserved a mental image of the sites at which access to the London Underground was permitted, at a user’s click, a range of ambient sounds peek through the observation points noted by the stubs with which Beck rendered “stops” in his iconic rendering by of the city.  Beck’s map was immediately popular among commuters as a way to re-render the urban space.  It has since gained such sustained popularity as a model for similar subway systems–it encouraged urban expansion in Sydney (just eight years later) and encouraged Beck to submit maps for other cities’ transport systems in future years.  Indeed, the image has become so a successful a symbolic rendering of London’s space for its conventions of colored lines and combining of circular hubs of interesecting lines with stubby stops to orient access to London’s underground.  By using the streamlined circuit-like conventions by which Beck had oriented riders to the expanding Underground and navigate their commutes, Rawes recuperated the lost sounds of the city’s waterways as if to remind readers of the distance at which they stand from them.

The Underground map was, of course, famous as a remapping of urban space, as much as an icon of London.  The diagram placed stations at a remove from actual distances or locations, but replaced an image of the actual geographical relations in the city by highlighting their routes on clearly colored paths that run in uniform lines  to prominently render interchange stations, filtering out any reference to the city’s physical topography save a quite schematic rendering of the Thames; the image was quickly affixed to every station on account of its highly readable ways by which it oriented city-dwellers and allowed them to gauge the crucial question of the number of stops–rather than the actual distances–to their destinations. If Beck’s map collapsed space, the map of waterways orients readers to the transit that water took across its expanse, in ways that seem similarly irrelevant to empirical geography.  Beck straightened the river’s course in the name of clarity in his diagram, in line with the straightening of trains’ routes for readers to allow them to better visualize routes of travel and the exchanges they would need to make.

Such is the conceptual clarity and considerable staying power of Beck’s diagram to navigate London’s underground makes it in fact quite difficult to view the actual pathways taken by Underground trains–yet Beck’s system of reference remains so powerful a symbolic form to conceptualize London’s Underground that it is disorienting to be presented with the actual courses train lines truly take in the city.  As a symbolic form of what Rudolf Arnheim called “visual thinking,” the diagram encouraged Londoners to take to the Underground as a way to navigate their commutes or daily travels with such success that an actual groundplan of the interface between the individual lines and the city’s space seems disorienting in how it reveals the meandering pathways that train lines actually take, the actual sinuous curves of the Thames, and the apparent failure of trains to turn at increments of 45° along their true courses.


Beck's lines mapped on London


We are far more ready to map the familiar transit lines displayed in a reference key and shown in the maps by pronounced paths of colors, as a network that existed as if autonomously from the city, to better find what he called its interchange stations.  The notion that the network was made up of discrete lines proved immensely influential in all later transit maps.

REferenceBeck’s Original Reference Key (1931)


For Beck’s crucial insight of simplifying the courses of trains by mapping subway lines in increments of forty-five degrees allowed riders to imagine the paths of trains as a network independent from the street map. It has been expanded, accommodating the multiplication of transit lines reflecting the city’s explosion:



Beck’s streamlined routes of the diagram offered Rawes a quite fitting medium to map each waterway’s aural settings at observation points.  Each “station” presented readers with a chance to look under the map to hear the sounds that peer out from it, at a click:  linked sound files map unmapped–and perhaps often forgotten–waterways from the River Lea, Wandel, Roding, the New River, Brent to Beverly Brook.   Rawes’ legend link multiple listening stations, linked on a similar spectrum of color-coded lines to orient viewers, even if each sound-file disperses one’s attention to the city’s surface in way that are wonderfully unlike the fixity of Beck’s coherent system–the map individuates points which invite readers to descends along railed stairways to join not the circuits of rail of the Underground, but the ways water courses below an inhabited surface.  Each waterway is assigned a uniquely colored path that approximates the hues of the current Underground, and are given the names of the actual waterway, transposing the natural and the man-made.


legend of rivers in mapLondon Sound Survey, Waterways (Legend)


Beck’s diagrammatic streamlining of the Tubelines provided an apt set of conventions quickly identified with underground transit routes of built conveyances.  He used them to chart hidden points at which the constellation of urban waterways intersect with the city’s lived environment.  The resulting soundscape map situated the emergence of waterways in the city.  The result is to suggest the points at which an otherwise hidden network of waterways reveal themselves in the soundscapes of docks, bridges, marshes, creeks, reservoirs and parks that we so often consider the built city to have replaced.

Pushing this avenue of investigation, Rawes invites readers to revisit and investigate a hidden network of waterways running under the city that are hidden from the familiar map’s surface.  In a metageographical terms, Rawes’ sound-map acts as a comment on the folly of conveying an actual level of continuity to the quite specific sites where water appears to be heard, and the relation of the transit of water in the city to the historically built means of transit–from traffic to the sounds of footsteps, joggers, walkers, the drone of airplanes, industry, or as well as ambient birdsong–and allow the unique poetics of an imaginary landscape to emerge that results from the situation of London’s actual hidden waterways.  To be sure, the role of the cartographer is as a disinterested observer–Rawes preserved this role, it seems–but offers archivally dated sound files of each place that the reader can savor in one-minute clips.


2.  The river, of course, runs through it.  The London Sound Survey of Waterways present a palimpsest of urban topography.  The location of the individual urban soundscapes offer a counter-map to urban space, exploiting the ways in which online maps invite us to go beyond this reading of the imaginary in an eery way.  By linking the mapped space of the city in an almost joyously synesthetic fashion with urban sounds, the sound survey of London’s waterways provides a way of tracking urban experiences around is hidden waterways, suddenly bringing them to the surface from the very tools of mapping London that are perhaps the best known.  By inventively embedding sound clips of tickling rivers, birdsong, traffic, droning of substations, cries of gulls or terns, trains, and even boats on the Thames, we see the city in new ways that recreate a map with an almost subjective intensity that is almost always inherently absent from a map’s face. Suddenly–unlike the original–we find the waterways of the inhabited city peeking into the stylized format of Beck’s transit map, as the submerged riverine paths are given a prominence most dwellers of the city ignore.

Beck’s diagram of the Underground intentionally abandons scale or correct proportions for regularity and apparently straight lines in his own schematic rendering of waterways.  Beck’s aim was to produce a quite stylized format to grasp facilitate urban communication and both plan and recognize routes of commutes.  The immediate success of Beck’s formal innovation of how to mediate he underground to its passengers of course now offers not only an icon of London, but served to helpfully map the city’s physical space, even while the diagram sacrificed exact spatial correspondence or measurements:  indeed, many visitors to London are regularly reminded to disregard the plain distortion of the Underground map, much as visitors to New York may need to be reminded that the walking distance between apparently nearby stops is greater than the map implied.  Beck diagrammed the Underground as a record of routes of transit not corresponding to their spatial organization.  Rawes invested similar regularity to the waterways that fed the River Thames, which he gives a prominence in his map, to which each of the waterways linked, though few have commerce with one another:  if Beck streamlined the Underground lines, Rawes Beck-ified London’s waterways to better distinguish streams usually hidden from public view, and to allow their sounds, if often overwhelmed by or interlaced with ambient noise.

In appropriating the conventions Beck pioneered for London’s Underground, the course of the city’s hidden but barely heard waterways are mapped to suggest the hidden streams running under the city, and bodies of water from canals to brooks to rivers with which the city’s inhabitants rarely recognize.  Rather than orienting viewers to the course of London’s rails, the map tracks waterways and reservoirs–the natural life and urban life–over which were built roads and buildings and the tube itself–and reducing the Thames to something like a mere geographical marker.  The sounds of the city, not only of its inhabitants, is meant by Ian Rawes to offer something of a more accurately embodied record than a map could offer in words and drawing, or might otherwise go overlooked.  (Despite the clearly modernist–almost futurist–rationality of Beck’s diagram, its circuit-like nature is notably less evident in the 1931 map Beck designed, which gives less prominence to a Circle Line, because it was primarily intended to carry folks to the city’s centers from outlying regions.)


London-Underground-Maps-009Harry Beck’s 1931 “Underground Map,” courtesy London Transit Museum


Beck’s diagram of the Underground nicely lends its recognizable structure to tracking the submerged waters of the rivers in ways that one can explore their relation to city sounds.  Sounds are removed from the graphic purity of Beck’s modernist design.  A barely-concealed aspect of Rawes’ homage to the draughtsman who designed the Tube Map is no doubt that Beck symbolized the Thames to appear innocuous in the Underground map–orienting viewers to the paths of rail-lines of commute that link London’s previously quite discrete neighborhoods, but which echoes the apparent straightness and gently curved lines of laid track, and, reduced to a  light blue abstraction, recedes into the visual background of the mapped field and is, in fact, no longer an obstruction to movement. In Beck’s map, the Thames’ pale blue almost sinuous curves are only as a sign of spatial reference.  In sharp contrast, the River Thames is ever-present as one approaches at different basins or boatyards, the irregularity of the canals and lesser rivers are shown as similarly stylized lines on which the viewer can use to click at a range of sites–rather than stops–to find a range of epiphanies manqués that underscore the incompleteness and selectiveness of the map–or any map at all.

In the Sound Survey of London’s waterways, the ways that Beck translated the network to terms passengers might best negotiate relinquished geographic accuracy, but became a basis to negotiate the city’s geography:   the presentation of the clickable map of urban soundscapes of water offers a counter-map of the city, and allows the online viewer to indulge in the multiple dimensions of the natural settings in which the track of the city’s Underground was built–and the sites of confluence of natural and man-made in today’s city.  If Beck’s image was quickly affixed to every station as a shared model for orienting city-dwellers to trace their paths of commute, the success 1931 printed map provided a framework whose popularity has endured, because of its remove from the city’s lived landscape, its interchange stations set against a blank white background to ensure its greater legibility by commuters.  There is something truly telling in that the map was commissioned to reduce the intolerable and untenable density of foot-traffic on London’s streets.


underground_map_beckVictoria and Albert Museum, “Underground Map” (1936)


3.  The sounds on which one click fill the diagram of waterways with an immediacy unfamiliar to maps.  In way that transforms viewers’ relation to the city, Rawes’ counter-map re-purposes the stylized simplicity of the lines of transit to show the proximity of the waters to urban settings:   the map focusses on waterways relegated outside the underground in Beck’s diagram.  The insight of preparing a set of lines that oriented viewers to how lines link to one another–more than the urban streets above–to suggest the autonomy of the system into which Londoners’ entered, as limiting the lines of rail to angles of forty-five degree increments, indeed oddly naturalized the streams that commuters would ride along and across the Thames:  Rawes organized his record soundscapes on rivers that followed as they entered its path.

The urban observation points, if rendered by Beck’s symbolic conventions, offer a distinct system to orient oneself to the map’s surface–in far less pointedly utilitarian ways.  While Beck’s map presented cues by which the train-passenger can orient themselves to the landscape of London in tacit fashion, in order to better orient themselves to its non-exact spatial scale, the city is absent from the diagram.  One function of the map is to place oneself in a close proximity to the water–on bridges, by viaducts, on a quay, by a lock–that can rarely, if ever, be recreated in a static map or web-based map, as well as to a complexly variegated aural environment of birdsong, workmen, planes,  and passersby.  Viewers of the London Sound Survey can be immediately transported, by one click, to relate to the city’s space in distinctly news ways–and a wonderfully synesthetic manner that few maps are able to offer, inviting a perceptual world into the map that defies its oculocentric organization as a surface that is only scanned.

By clicking at a toponymy quite unlike that of Beck’s classic map, one enters a sonorous site whose power almost asks one to resist the city as a cohesive collective and focus on moments of the transcendent.  For we are struck by a barrage of closely observed sense-based observations, on a gamut of individual sounds cumulatively overwhelming as site-specific perceptions of London’s canals, rivers and streams so as to reveal a “sweet inland murmur” that echoes the revelatory manner that the Romantic poet William Wordsworth evoked, while returning to its banks of the River Wye that he had often remembered as to “a landscape to a blind man’s eye.”  Wordsworth’s elegant formulation of the sense of transport as he stood “by the sides/ of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams” led him to apostrophize the “sylvan Wye,” whose sounds seem a form of local transcendence, as a place of blending perception and creation–a pastoral whose “tranquil restoration” lies not only in the perception of waters “rolling from their mountain springs,” but a recognition how at their sound “the picture of the mind revives again.”

One does not perhaps feel the same ecstasy sort of transport Wordsworth had described at each minute of sound, but all transport us to another place, and to conjure the flow of water beneath the map.  Each station force one to sort out the flood of discrete sense-based perceptions that one registers with immediacy;  Wordsworth described being overcome by the sublime of “sensations sweet,/Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798).  The sensations its sounds and sights provoked he knew well, were re-felt as he saw it again as if for the first time.  Although few observation stations in contemporary London offered the opportunity to “hear the mighty waters rolling evermore,” individual “observation stations” offer points of ingress to hone in on places absent from Beck’s map, to access a similar “sweet inland murmur” of waterways and city sounds.  In an age of global warming and the recession of ocean waters, and when the water levels of major rivers have dropped worldwide, it is not that one arrives at a redemptive sublime beneath the map of Wordworthian proportions by listening to the sounds of London’s waterways, or takes stock of being newly attuned to one’s past memories of a sight and placebut that the lived city appears, through the sounds, to one’s mind.

As the names of pseudo-stations in the Sound Survey’s version of Beck’s map provide names linking to Rawes’ soundfiles, auditory perception is linked to place through the magic of the map in ways that seem a sort of local sublime.  Clicking on stations not only orient readers to place, but transport readers to a mental image of a glimpsed landscape, if in pointillist fashion:  each offers a revelation of the traces of the waterways that fed the Thames or canalized water in the city.  The salient waterways and canals are suddenly made evident, and able to be traced, below what we usually consider the city’s physical plant.  And as the reader encounters equivalents of the “sad music of humanity,” the cries of adults and footsteps of passersby, moving both in and out of the water that flows around the city and birdsong about its canals, rivers and streams:   the “stations” conjure the sounds urban inhabitants might have once recognized, navigating its rivers as they run through and reappear in parks, channels, reservoirs and zoos.

The poetics of the soundscape map seems truly Wordsworthian:  the click of a cursor offers readers the opportunity to revisit the city’s waters, and by revisiting the sonority of settings around the city take stock of their changing relation with its actual environment, but create images of place in the mind’s eye.  While the relatively rapid adoption of the iconography of the “Underground Map” situated rail-riders in London in ways that rapidly habituated them to a new understanding of its expanse, the sounds of waterways access a hidden set of sensations London.  One hears the ducks and gulls that circle above the West Reservoir in North London with a chill, as the roar of traffic recedes, listens to the overlooked but immediately recognizable appearances of sounds of water and nature in the built city.  (The textual descriptors that appear after clicking on each “stop” catalogue the impressions, but cannot fail to capture their experience.  The sounds of coots chasing one another at “Welsh Harp” suggest that Beck’s map, and the project of cartographical modernity, has been directing our attention to the wrong things all the time.)  When one clicks on the sound survey of urban estuaries, rendered at points as if rail stations or stops on the underground, lived moments pierce through the familiar symbolic surface of the map, as lived experience breaks through it surface, as if the offered points of entry ways to an underground station; a click transports one beneath the map, in ways that seem to break through the symbolic surface in ways that remind us of the distance between mapping and the aural environments the mapmakers recorded.  The ecstasies of “dizzy rapture” calls our attention to the often unnoticed flow of waters about the built city, and aural particulars of the environment that escape most all mapping, as “every common sight” delivered seems chanced upon, and as a moment “present pleasure” “upon the banks/Of this fair river” was recast “Apparell’d in celestial light.”


wye-valley-hills-wide-1600x900River Wye


The intense barrage of imagery Wordsworth’s 1798 poem is evoked in the sound map Rawes designed in 2012.  For the density of detail in Rawes’ recordings suggest the illusion of rendering continuity in a map–and preserves the immediacy of the reality that lies beneath any map.  The counter-symbolization of London’s cityscape in the sound map offers inverts the near-absence of the Thames in Beck’s map, altering the streamlined simplicity of the Tube Map’s circuitry, as it dismembers the circular pathways of interlinked trains to a web of discretely noted rivers and waterways, and suggesting the irregularity of the river’s bends.  Rather than marginalize the Thames as the sole route of water, a wide strip of a set of parallel blue lines, almost external to the mapped system of metro lines, waterways are indeed the system mapped for the London Sound Survey of waterways, Beck’s iconography, tongue-in-cheek, as a way to trace waterways that expand from the Thames as they reveal its feeders:


Soundmap after Beck


The pathways taken by water in London are rendered by the standardized conventions to order the aural environments of the birdsong, bubbling brooks, or the dripping water in London’s creeks and minor rivers effectively pierce the smooth and streamlined diagram of Beck’s modernist circuit-like symbolization of the Undergound.  They allow us to engage with the sound world that Beck’s map intentionally omits:  one hears rushing water of the River Lea at “Pickett’s Dock”; faint cries of seagulls at “Camden”, before a train intrudes as it enters Euston Station (not on the map); birdcalls that arrive from the nearby aviary at the “London Zoo”, with a magpie chattering, adult coots heard in the Reservoir at “Welsh Harp”; “Paddington Basin” (not station) is dominated by the sounds of air conditioning units and powersaws–and puts the sound of trains, traffic, footsteps, human cries, or construction that are heard in the background, as if intruding into a sound environment, as well as being part of it, allowing one to imagine a landscape peeling away layers of history with insouciance for viewers lucky enough to click there.  At a click, an aural experience of the lived world of the city emerges from the map as if leaks out of the surface that Beck’s iconography leaks out from the map’s surface.  Each small sound clip transports one to a sense of place that unfolds in one’s imagination with a physical clarity that is altogether absent–and indeed banished–from Beck’s more utilitarian (and sterile) transit map.  The sound clips transport one to specific sites, rather than allow an infinite number of itineraries to be traced by multiple users, but allow one to explore the city’s aural dimension through a visually and symbolically similar map.

The map invests discrete moments of specifically noted times with new meaning as a collection–and suggest less of an inhabited city than ambient sounds most city-dwellers in London be apt to neglect, which would undoubtedly never be noticed if they had not been recorded.  Indeed, the transient sounds of a world filled with water offer a sense of tactile contact with the place described, through a map, that at the same time, unlike a map, suggest the evanescent nature of place, and its fragile beauty.  At this point, the map is a map, but it is also a portrait more intensely immediate than any map can be:  in the medium of the internet, the immediacy of this map lies in its non-visible parts, which take one down passageways unable to be depicted on paper.  Once one gets rid of the cellulose embrace the interface, the flimsiness of the static designation of place–even the not so well-known places in the Sound Map of London’s Waterways.  As Mutton Brook flows nearby “Hampstead Gardens”, one seems to be knowing the place with a far more acute immediacy than any name could offer.  As one clicks the map, the sounds recorded on specific dates acquire a timelessness.  And one experiences, after repeated clicks, an eery impression that the selected sounds seem chosen so randomly to make one aware of the omission of any information in a map–and the mechanized nature of the possibilities of interaction that the map offers.  This argument may press the notion of the poetics of cartography to a further degree than the London Sound Survey intended, but it hardly seems a coincidence.

In listening to these sounds, one can suddenly recuperate the ambient sounds that stand at odds with the overwhelming aural experience of the underground, long a deafening roar and clang-and-clatter.  We listen, in a focussed and almost Zen fashion, to the rasping of grasshoppers, magnified to be louder than surrounding traffic, at “Tottenham Marshes”, or the birdsong, playing children, and barking dog at “Palmers Green”:  the apparent evanescence of local sounds stand, as it were, as an entry place to creating an image of each site.  If they seem in constant tension with the totality of the city, showing the foolhardy nature of any hope of truly comprehending a synthesis of the city’s variegated landscape as a continuous expanse, they allow access to meaningful overlays of sound in specific sites.  If reduced to a set of poetic fragments, the city is not only uncomfortably dismantled in the map, reduced to a set of recordings, but the recordings register changing degrees in the presence of water in the built environment and allow us to discover the waterways concealed in most maps.  Through them, we discover space by a completely new toponymy than that which usually appears on maps to better create them by the mind’s eye:  the result is something like a meditation on the poetics of cartographical creation that Wordsworth might have admired, or at least recognized, as a lover of “the mighty world/ Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,/ And what perceive.”

Dual functions of sense-perception embedded in the London Sound Survey of Waterways cannot fail to appeal to the mind’s eye:


Life falls out of the map, in purely auditory form, and map a gap between the map as construction and the lived cityscape.  The minute-long intervals of cascading of water one encounters as one walks beside the Wandle in South London, coots in North London, the Ravensbourne at “Bromley Common”, the faint roar of the Roding at “Woodford”, River Beam at “The Chase”, the trickle of the pools at “Lower Sydenham”, punctuate the monotony of the static form of a printed map, and indeed dramatically shift our perceptions of space:  we hear a car moving, hear voices of adults or children in the background, but these glimpses of the day-to-day offer a sense of the stability of the experiential, in ways that few paper maps can ever do.  We are not actors who determine this environment, than we are passing through it to appreciate it.  Its given names were assigned by humans, but those names, for a moment, actually seem completely beside the point.

Leave a comment

Filed under London, London Sound Survey, London Underground, Sound Studies, Soundscapes

How to Get Lost?

In the age of the globalized compass of GPS, where the world is ringed by thirty-two satellites that download continuous feeds to our mobile devices as if monitoring our every move, it’s hard to imagine how we can get lost.  Yet the ease with which AirAsia flight QZ8501 disappeared, as its pilot lost contact and communication with ground control over the waters of the  Indonesian archipelago, poses problems of how a direct flight suddenly vanished from the monitors of controllers, as much as how contact was lost, in an era when we mostly imagine flight paths as discrete itineraries.




Gone seem the days when weather systems led ships went astray, and the merchant steamship Archimedes driven wildly off of its course in the summer of 1929, when it was swept wildly off course for four days, overloaded with goods, inside the vortex of hurricane winds while preparing for a tobacco run to China.  The drama that Richard Hughes narrates in In Hazard about the event that prompted Joseph Conrad to write Typhoon described the limits of modern engineering–an challenge between engineering and the environment–as the modern steamship, aptly named the Archimedes, lost all of its forward thrust in the high winds of a hurricane while it was laden with goods.  Such meteorological challenges seem anachronistically removed, despite the still compelling nature of the narrative of the struggle to send steam to pumps to right a sloping deck, an impossible challenge in the eye of the storm for even the finest engineers aboard the ship.

The struggles of being swept off course described in In Hazard resonate with the unexpected disappearance of AirAsia flight QZ8501, however, which somehow disappeared near Borneo after it lost contact with air traffic controllers while carrying 162 on route to Singapore.  So do the problems of its loss of all propulsion and, apparently, orientation due to possible electromagnetic interference in a fateful–in this case, also tragically fatal–storm.  The crash of the Airbus airplane into the sea provoked a range of fears about the possible causes for its captain and co-pilot’s sudden disorientation, but rather than pose problems of engineering, the loss of the plane in severe thunderstorms raised questions of how it disappeared from the map.  Even given very limited radar coverage over so large an expanse of water prevents adequate tracking of the plane’s actual position by radar over the South China Seas, the loss of contact in an increasingly interconnected world may pose problems both of communication and of envisioning overcrowded flight paths on a map.  The increased crowding of flights over the archipelago in recent years poses problems of allowing safe passage over ocean waters, and indeed across the high winds of an inter-tropical convergence zone, long known for unpredictable weather systems but, we must ask, perhaps inadequately accounted for in the increasingly crowded flight corridors around Indonesian airspace.

How could the plane have gotten lost?  Airlines do not stream geolocation data in real time, partly since they use voice-to-voice communication, but no doubt  because the notion that the plane would be “lost at sea” seems so small a possibility or likelihood:  yet the difficulties in establishing communication with the plane are puzzling in an area of apparently continuous monitoring.  It is especially eerie since no actual witness’s voice survives to narrate what happened after it lost all contact with air traffic controllers shortly after having requested to change course.  After having vanished from radar screens quite suddenly, and exiting the map of monitors, the interrupted path of AirAsia 8501 is difficult to explain:  no “black box” has survived or may be ever found.  It seems the airbus carrying 162 people vanished at a time when we rarely if ever leave the map, however: the mystery of how it did strains common credulity, but some answers seem to lie in the maps of the crowded scene in which the pilots charted their plane’s actually otherwise ordinary path.  Even as dozens of bodies have been recovered, none wearing life jackets, we are left to imagine the complete panic that ensued as the plane went off its course, only to plummet and be engulfed in the sea below.  Is it possible that the tragedy of losing contact with air traffic controllers over ocean seas might be more important to map than the point at which the flight mysteriously abandoned its planned flight path?


2-10 after take-offNew York Times


The shocking density of the air traffic levels among different flights is closely tied to rapidly increasing air-traffic off the coast of Indonesia.  Several aircraft were in close vicinity of the airbus when its signal was suddenly lost.  The refusal of a request from its captain, Iryanto, to ascend course from 32,000 to 38,000 feet to avoid worrisome weather conditions from AirAsia QZ8501 was not quickly granted to the captain, we suspect, partly on account of the difficulty of balancing how many flights were in transit in the crowded airspace flying to Singapore or easterly through Indonesia.  Exactly what happened to the plane’s flight path is not clear, but it seems the pilots’ orientation or sense of what the flight path was seems to have been lost as their plane was steered into the clouds they sought to avoid, and their own navigational systems and magnetic compasses seem to have been disabled or adversely affected as a result–perhaps by a lightning storm in the vicinity.  The request air of traffic controls at Soekarno-Hatta Airport was sent to Indonesia’s Changi Airport and approved, but was asked to only ascend to 34,000 feet; when the pilot was notified at 6:14 a.m., no reply was ever received.  Jakarta’s air traffic control, AirNav Indonesia, contacted flight control in Singapore, in an attempt to accommodate the request:  “It took us around 2 to 3 minutes to communicate with Singapore. We agreed to allow the plane to increase its height but only to 34,000 feet, because at that time AirAsia flight QZ8502 was flying at 38,000 feet,” explained the state navigation operator, Wisnu Darjono, but the limited space allowed did not meet the pilot’s request.  (The recent announcement by Indonesia’s transportation ministry that AirAsia QZ8501 in fact flew on a schedule that was unauthorized reveals an additional possible reason for this delay, but has not been confirmed.)

Was the apparent hesitation of response due to the appearance of an otherwise unscheduled flight within the increasingly crowded corridors of flights over the South China Seas, or to the difficulty to predict weather systems in rerouting of flight paths?  The challenges of mapping air traffic seem considerable, as are challenges of using judgment to offer pilots with the quick responses that they require: the returning flight seems to have already obtained the increased elevation that Iryanto had requested.


traffic-720New York Times; flight path data from  FlightRadar24, rendered by Gregor Asch


Iryanto did not specify the reasons for the change in path.  But the region was dense with cumulonimbus clouds, associated with heavy precipitation, if not thunderstorms:  both the pilot and copilot are presumed to have become disoriented in what may have been severe thunderstorms–as would be typical for such a “convergence” region, it seems, where tropical trade winds from two hemispheres regularly intersect and create poor conditions for navigating not only ships but airplanes.  News Agencies and television networks have faulted poor weather conditions and thunderstorms in the area, weather systems explain only part of the mechanics of the terrible failure; but the ability to avoid such storms by a margins of twenty miles depends on a system of clear communication with air controllers after leaving Surubaya.

The sense of ‘getting lost’ is hard to communicate on the map, and few further stories will probably be told, like Conrad or Hughes, about the Airbus A302 jet and its 162 passengers and crew.  The young, low-cost airline, which flies some rightly planes across South Asia, is, according to the Times, operates more Airbus A 320’s than most firms in the world and large providers of flights in the region; the plain was. ominously, piloted by a captain and first officer may have had relatively few flying hours–some report that it amounted to only 8, 375 between them, as AirAsia earlier noted in a press release, although Tony Fernandes, the AirAsia CEO, claimed considerably more for the pilot (20,500)–7,000 with AirAsia for him alone.  Both lost contact with ground control, as the plane suddenly vanished–hours of fuel in its engine some forty-five minutes after take-off, in ways that left folks staring blankly into a map, as they would when monitoring search efforts.  While news networks invoke unforeseen weather conditions, is that even a satisfying or responsible answer?  The possibility that AirAsia was potentially regularly flying aircraft that had not been cleared for permission with Indonesia raises the fears of sort of vigilante flying to meet market demand one would rather not consider.

30indonesia-hp-jumboDarren Whiteside/Reuters


There are many such narratives in maps suggesting increasing congestion of airline flights above the South China Seas.  If, as first suggested in a tweet by Archie Tse, #AirAsia8501, and seems increasingly likely, the airplane’s disappearance was preceded by how local air traffic control prevented the plane from changing not only its flight path but altitude as requested in the face of changing meteorological conditions, responsibility may largely lie in poor preparation for an increasingly over-crowded density of flight paths.  For the ability to get lost in unexpected weather systems is greatly intensified in an area where the rerouting of flight-paths might be so problematically constrained–and where air traffic has recently so intensified that its paths are not easily rerouted in to accommodate the need to avoid or circumvent volatile weather systems, and where the plotting of a clear flight path might more accurately perceived from the cockpit–and needing to be adjusted through clear communication with local airports.  In such conditions, monitoring and mapping air traffic seems especially fraught.  An image of those planes run by AirAsia by FlightTracker on January 2 reveals the increased expansion of flights across the archipelago–


flight aware flights of airasia over archipelafgo jan 2 10-20 amFlight Aware’s live Flight Tracker, Jan 2 11:41 a.m.


And when the request from the airplane not only to ascend an additional 6,000 feet to avoid terrifyingly dense cloud cover was denied by air traffic controllers, the Indonesian newspaper Kompas reported, “because of air traffic,” the liabilities of readily plotting safe courses of travel in an area where air traffic has rapidly expanded with a proliferation of low-cost airlines–along a business model with which we are today unfortunately all too familiar for most Americans, AirAsia adopted the “no-frills” model of customer relations, charging for luggage, snacks, and choice seating, that paralleled a threefold expansion from 2003-11 of unfettered growth in the density of air traffic above the archipelago, already a region of increasing unstructured expansion and transportation congestion.  The seven years of uninterrupted growth of domestic airlines in the skies above Indonesia rapidly accelerated in recent years, meeting a growing demand for local and international travel in a region that is expected to see a huge and unchecked growth in urban expansion by 2030, at steep economic and ecological costs of growing carbon emissions across the region that is the fourth densest population in the world, or only shortly behind the United States.


Domestic Indonesian airlines Source: Innovate weekly average April 2013; Anna Aero


In the ambit of air travel, the unstructured expansion of flights around the Indonesian archipelago seems to have become particularly acute in recent years as the region is served by networks of cheap flights across the Indonesian archipelago, including such growing airlines such as Citilink, Tigerair, and Valuair.  For these airlines, whom the problem of mapping congested travel parallels better known problem of airlines pushing pilots to run repeated flights on no rest, asking air traffic controllers to work for low pay, and adopting practices of poor overall management inadequate to expanding congestion of airways over one of the most inhabited areas of the world, as the archipelago’s oceanic expanse is increasingly covered by a web of short- or long-distance commercial flights.


Air Asia routes map


The apparent failure to chart routes among planes adequately–and provide a communication infrastructure to map the course of planes to map routes in a way sufficiently flexible to allow pilots to avoid weather systems like thunderstorms, from which planes are required to maintain a distance of at least twenty miles, must have become intensified as AirAsia alone rapidly expanded service in the Archipelago and to India and Japan–intensifying air traffic by a huge degree in a region where radar often works poorly to track planes with precision, and communication between airports may lag.  The flat blue field over which so many miniature plans of different sizes swarm conceals the weather systems and winds that tragically interrupted the expected trajectory of the AirAsia plane as it passed Southern Sumatra, where it lost all contact with air controllers.  Imagine flying an unannounced plane within such crowded skies and being surprised by dangerous weather conditions.


airasia8501Flight path and last known position of AirAsia Flight 8501/


Was the airplane in fact lost because it was not granted permission to ascend, and was hemmed in by the existing flight paths of other planes?  That rather terrifying possibility would show the difficulties of accommodating the explosion of air travel in the region, and the need to create a more comprehensive system of mapping air travel across the region’s skies.  If our own air-travel experience seems increasingly suggests a market-driven decrease in quality-of-flying experience that has stratified the experience of flying with surcharges galore, the expanding free-market of the friendly skies in South Asia that led air traffic controllers to refuse to grant the possibility of climbing 6,000 feet “because of traffic” is revealed in the map of the density of air-traffic that Flight 8501 needed to navigate at the time of its disappearance, and to whom it had to offer each other adequate berth, and the reluctance of granting climbing such a height may reflect the difficulties of negotiating multiple flight paths stacked and superimposed upon one another.   (It is striking that the South China Seas were a notoriously dangerous area for maritime travel, especially in the particularly unpredictable area near the equator of an ‘intertropical convergence zone’ (ITCZ) where trade winds of both hemispheres intersect–as was well-known to sailors in the same region over a century ago.

Have we actually forgotten to adequately integrate meteorological conditions in the very maps of charting and planning airline routes on which we now increasingly rely?)  Since even at a low altitude, the plane was probably flying through clouds containing ice or supercooled water, the need to chart such shifting weather conditions in maps seems particularly complicated by questions of overly crowded skies.


traffic-720New York Times; flight path data from  FlightRadar24, rendered by Gregor Aitch


The flight seems to have landed in the water but two miles from the site of having lost contact with the AirNav controller, as the plane’s forced entry into storm clouds provoked an icing of the engine that led the Airbus A320-200 plane with 162 people aboard to crash into the Java Sea.




Debris and Plane

Although the comparisons between two recently disappeared planes which took off from the same region of the world seem inevitable, the proliferation of news maps in the media about the lost Air Malaysia Flight 370 that departed from Kuala Lumpur, with a destination of Beijing, only to take a U-turn in the South China Sea, is different from the mapping of the flight path or trajectory of the lost AirAsia Airbus A302–and not only because the path of the former could not be traced by pings, while the airbus took the path of flight that had been planned.  But the sudden disappearance of AirAsia 8501 seems especially tragic because of the record of the pilot’s apparent failure to avoid the meteorological disturbances and potential thunderstorms in which the flight may have lost orientation and been lost.

The map of the AirAsia flight also reveals the intense crowding of skies, no doubt prioritizing profit and driven by a free-market, to create the most economically efficient process for filling the skies with flights, without allowing space for variations in meteorological conditions, that seems oddly similar to the noted decline in attention to passengers or consumers in a near-monopoly of merged airlines in the United States in its discounting of the experience of the quality of the passenger or preparation of the plane for flight.  Independently from the navigational experience of the pilots at hand, the incredible lack of attention to planning paths of flight or airspace in a region where flight has so markedly expanded in recent years suggests that market forces in and of themselves are not so easily or clearly guided by the proverbial invisible hand.  In the case of an approaching lightning storm, the invisible hand might be more likely to pluck a passing airliner and its up to 200 passengers from the sky some two hours and ten minutes after take-off.


2-10 after take-offNew York Times


The ability to get lost in weather systems is dependent on experience, to be sure, but increasingly on incomplete or inaccurate communication–and on the difficulties of accommodating to weather–in ways that can become an unspeakable if not incomprehensible tragedy for all.  One cannot ask what might have been, but must untangle the liabilities of our increasingly crowded airspace.

When Malaysia’s Chief of Navy tweeted an image of the surface sectors that are still being searched for the plane effective as of 30 December, he seemed to acknowledge the broad reasons that are in need of patrolling for signs of the plane that seems now, sadly, to lie beneath the ocean waters.





The commonalities between the painful interrogation of air flight maps in the search and that for the Air Malaysia 340 flight and the AirAsia 8501 disaster lie in the déjà vu quality of viewers’ complete disempowerment before the map of air travel, and the unknown worries that the devastating disaster provoked.  And as governments are beset by the need to respond to increasing preoccupation of the dangers of air flight, we need to calm our own sense of air safety, a deep need to try to resolve the reasons for the tragic death of so many people echoes as we scurry to see how such a catastrophic outcome of an air freight might be explained.  It is in fact unclear what maps will tell us about the search for the plane at this point.  But given that airplanes are required to stay some twenty miles from thunderstorms, it seems incumbent to ensure that all flight paths can be granted the necessary latitude to be rerouted to guarantee that planes safely maintain such precautionary distances from one another.

The hurry to grant available flight pathways in a particularly crowded corridor of flight-paths seems likely to leave many staring, without hope of clear answers, at the actually quite limited information about flight conditions in given locations that can be presented in a paper map.  The delayed response–the wrenching grieving–only leads us back, uncomprehendingly, to contemplate the mute maps of the flight paths.


Indonesia Plane


The tragedy provokes a reflection on problems of engineering and extreme weather with an unexpected twist:  for rather than presenting a story of being blown off course, showing nature challenging the best practices of engineering, as symbolized by the very name of the steamship Archimedes, the AirAsia flight less faced the limits of engineering, than problems of communication and planning:  it may be that problems of re-routing the airbus were forestalled because of broken off communication and inadequate of coordinated planning to oversee congested air-corridors or most flexibly coordinate the supervision of regional flight paths.  Rather than being caught in a drama of problems of mechanical engineering, like the passengers of the Archimedes, the 162 passengers and crew seem to have suffered from inadequate oversight of an almost unfettered expansion of the marketplace for air travel in the region.  In fact, despite well-founded calls airlines uniformly adopt “real-time” tracking of their aircraft, such as the system that is sold by the Canadian company Flyht, this would be more helpful in locating the plane, rather than maintaining the security of flight paths, although the equipment would stream cockpit voice recordings and flight data in ways that would primarily be to help investigators understand the causes of the aircraft’s loss and determine where it is located.

The problem may well lie in how we collectively continue to envision flight paths as discrete ones.  In an age when we too often imagine the itineraries of air-travel to be disembodied, point-to-point trips plotted in isolation from their surroundings, we might do well to reconsider the imaginary construction by which we map airplane flights for passengers, and its possibilities of almost intentional obfuscation of isolated images of travel shown over the face of the globe.


Viewfinders imagine



Many basic questions still demand to be answered.  But itineraries are preserved in the images of mapped routes that we still use as a basis for understanding airplane travel, and indeed for planning the routes of travel that we make in increasingly crowded skies. Yet do they allow us to describe the shifting experience of flown space, in an era when the relations between flights seem as important to map as the relation between points of departure and a destination?



Sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik completing his sculpture of the two missing jet aircraft, the AirAsia airbus QZ8501 and the lost aircraft Malaysia Airlines MH370, on the Golden Sea Beach at Puri (India) on December 29, 2014


The questioning view from the shorline doesn’t understand the crowded itineraries of the sky, but in rendering two jets, upward-tilting nose facing upward-tilting nose that ascend as if through the clouds, Pattinik’s sand sculpture links the two flights on allegedly guided paths to ask how could have gotten lost.

Leave a comment

Filed under AirAsia Flight 8501, flight navigation maps, Flight Radar, mapping commercial flights, mapping flight paths

Arctic Circles

While we went on our annual northward migration to Ottawa, gathered around the unused fireplace in an unheated living room during the warmest Canadian Christmas in personal experience–as well as in the public record for Atlantic Canada, where local records for rainfall have surpassed all earlier recorded years.  Perhaps because of this, discussion turned to ownership of the North Pole for the first time.  Although one assumption circulated that the place was Canadian by birthright—birthright to the Arctic?–since it is so central to national mythistory.  But there’s as much validity for its claims as the more strident claim the explorer Artur Chilingarov made to justify his planting of a Russian tricolor in the murky ocean bed 2.5 miles below the North Pole, during the 2007 polar expedition of the Mir submarine, by bluntly stating “The Arctic has always been Russian.” But Canadian PM Steven Harper took no time in decrying and warning his nation against the danger of Russian plans for incursions into the arctic in his tour of Canada’s North, thumping his chest on the need for greater vigilance against Russia’s arctic “imperial” ambitions, addressing troops who participated in military maneuvers off of Baffin island in 2014.

The question of exactly where the arctic lies, how it can be bounded within a territory, or, one supposes, how such an economically beneficial “good” that was part of how parts of the north pole might get away from Canada, is an issue with roots in global warming, rather than in Lord Shackleton’s conquest of the ice-bound pole.  For the rapid shrinkage of ice in the Arctic Sea has raised pressing issues of sovereignty and made questions of the exploitation of its natural resources and potential routes of trade has made questions of the ownership of Arctic oceans–the territoriality of the seas–increasingly pressing, as some 14 million square kilometers of Arctic Ocean have emerged not only as open for exploration, but as covering what is estimated as 13% or more of total reserves of oil remaining to be discovered world wide.



20141220_IRM937 The Economist


While it seemed unrelated to the ice melting from nearby roofs, or large puddles on the streets of Ottawa, conflicting and contested territorial claims that have recolored most maps of the Arctic so that its sectors look like the geopolitical game board for RISK, that wonderful artifact of the late Cold War.  Rather than map the icy topography of the region as a suitably frosty blue, as Rand McNally would long have it, we now see contested sectors of the polar regions whose borderlands lie along the Lomonosov Ridge (which runs across the true pole itself).  The division of the pole so that it looks like post-war Berlin is an inevitable outcome of the fact that the arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, resulting in the opening of an area that was for so long rarely mapped, and almost always colored white with shades of picturesque light blue to suggest its iciness.  The lands newly revealed in the northern climes have however led territorial claims of sovereignty to be staked by a four-color scheme of mapping.  The uncovering of arctic lands–in addition to new technologies for underwater oil extraction and sensing–have complicated the existing maps of ocean waters premised upon expanding existing territorial waters an additional 278 kilometers beyond what can be proven to be an extension of a landmasses’ continental shelf–expanding since 1984 the rights to Arctic waters of the United States, Denmark, and Canada, according to consent to the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Convention (UNICLOS) which sought to stabilize on scientific grounds competing claims to arctic sovereignty.


Arctic Boudnary Disputes


The issues have grown in complex ways as the melting of Arctic ice has so dramatically expanded in recent years.  Even more than revealing areas that were historically not clearly mapped for centuries, the melting of the polar cap’s ice in the early twenty-first century has precipitated access to the untapped oil and gas reserves—one eight of global supplies—and the attendant promise of economic gains.  Due to the extreme rapidity with which polar temperatures have recently risen in particular, the promises of economic extraction have given new urgency to mapping the poles and the ownership of what holes will be drilled there for oil exploration:  rather than being open to definition by the allegedly benevolent forces of the free market, the carving up of the arctic territories and disputes over who “owns” the North Pole are the nature follow-through of the recent opening up of new possibilities of cross-arctic trade that didn’t involve harnessed Alaskan Huskies drawing dog sleds.  For the decline in the ice-cover of the arctic, as it was measured several years ago, already by 2011 had opened trade routes like the Northwest Passage that were long figures of explorers’ spatial imaginaries, but are all of a sudden being redrawn on maps, assuming names that were long considered but the figments of the overly active imaginations of early modern European arctic explorers and navigators in search of the discovery of sea routes to reach the Far East.

20120616_SRM980The Melting North,” Economist

On the one hand, these maps are the end-product of the merchant-marine wish-fulfillment of the eighteenth-century wishful mapping of the French Admiral Bartholomew de Fonte, whose maps promised that he had personally discovered several possible courses of overcoming a trade-deficit caused by British domination of the Atlantic waters, allowing easy access to the South Seas.  The imagination of such routes proliferated in a set of hopeful geographies of trade which weren’t there in the late eighteenth century, of which de Fonte’s General Map of the Discoveries is an elegant mixture of fact and fiction, and imagined polar nautical expeditions of a fairly creative sort, presenting illusory open pathways as new discoveries to an audience easily persuaded by mapping pathways ocean travel, even if impassable, and eager to expand opportunities for trade by staking early areas of nautical sovereignty to promise the potential navigational itineraries from Hudson Bay or across the Tartarian nation of the polar pygmies:




Open-ended geographies of land-masses were given greater credibility by the dotted lines of nautical itineraries from a West Sea above California to Kamchatka, a peninsula now best-known to practiced players of RISK:




As well as imagine the increase potential shipping routes that can speed existing pathways of globalization, in fact, the meteorological phenomenon of global warming has also brought a global swarming to annex parts of the pole in confrontational strategies reminiscent of the Cold War that tear a page out of the maps, which give a similar prominence to Kamchatka, of the board game ‘RISK!’  Will their growth lead to the naming of regions that we might be tempted to codify in a similarly creatively improvised manner–even though the polar cap was not itself ever included in the imaginative maps made for successive iterations of the popular game of global domination made for generations of American boys.



RISK (1968)


1 living room, dining room, kitchen IMG_1319

Risk!, undated



Risk, current board


Will future editions include the poles as well, before they melt in entirety, as the ways that they become contested among countries percolate in the popular imagination?  We must await to see what future shorelines codified in the special ‘Global Warming Edition’ of RISK–in addition to those many already in existence in the gaming marketplace.

If the game boards suggest Christmas activities of time past, the ongoing present-day game of polar domination seems to be leading to an interesting combination of piece-moving and remapping with less coordinated actions on the parts of its players.  We saw it first with Russia’s sending the Mir up to the North, which precipitated how Norway claimed territoriality of a sizable chunk of Arctic waters around the island of Svalbard; then Denmark on December 15 restocked its own claims, no doubt with a bit of jealousy for Norwegian and Swedish oil drilling, to controlling some 900,000 square kilometers of arctic ocean north of Greenland, arguing that they in fact belong to its sovereign territories, and that geology reveals the roots of the so-called Lomonosov Ridge itself as an appendage of Greenland, a semi-autonomous region of Denmark, upping up the ante its claims to the pole.  While the Russians were happy to know that their flag was strategically but not so prominently placed deep, deep underwater in the seabed below the poles, the problem of defining the territorial waters of the fast-melting poles upped the ante for increasing cartographical creativity.   Recognized limits of 200 nautical miles defines the territorial waters where economic claims can be made, but the melting of much of the Arctic Ocean lays outside the claims of Canada (although it, too, hopes to stake sovereignty to a considerable part of the polar continental shelf), by extending sovereign claims northward from current jurisdictional limits to divide the mineral wealth.  While the free market isn’t able to create an exactly equanimous division of land-claims, the new levels of Denmark’s irrational exuberance over mineral wealth led the country to advance new claims for owning the north pole, and oil-rich Norway eager to assert its rights to at least a sixth of the polar cap, given the centrality of its continued hold on the definition of the north, has led to a new set of claims on polar ownership among international bodies such as the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Seas (UNICLOS) that exist hopes codify the area peaceably by shared legal accords–before the ice-cover all melts.

Merry Christmas!


Filed under Arctic Exploration, Lomonosov Ridge, Lord Shackleton, mapping the North Pole, North Pole, Northwest Passage, UNICLOS

Available Metrics of America’s Divided Economies #2

The ballyhooed shift of the economy from the industrial to the technological and financial sectors seems like it conceals the deep shift in the geography of the working male:  while the anthropocentric focus of the data is not meant to be gender-biased, it reveals a steady decline of the “working man”–an astounding tripling of men not working since the late 1960s.  The expansion of those not working reflects in roughly broad brushstrokes parallels a decline of the industrial workforce, but is also an interesting metric to map the transformation of the nation in ways that concepts of the Recession or failures of job-production cannot describe.  The terrain of men between twenty-five and fifty-four without work–a rough measure of adulthood and able-bodiedness, of which even setting traditional parameters, provide a contrast with the categories of a landscape of the past,  and suggests the shifting place of the working age man in American society–if not the relation between man and work, and the absence of work’s spatial distribution in the United States.

Recent visualizations of the decline of a national workforce seem more like conversation stoppers from which there is little prospect of relief or escape than invitations for thought.  While what we talk about when we view a data visualization is dictated by the parameters of the snapshot it declares, the landscape of the out of work in America is on the front burner of most data visualizers, who have been competing, in the manner of so many actuaries, to present the best picture of American decline.  Fear grips the visualization of the drying up of work, which seems extracted or deflated in ways that create a new sense of hills and valleys in the topographic maps of the country:  what were once centers of the economy are transformed in the economic landscapes of unemployment that they present, providing new contours that we are asked to assess as if it is time to assess the place where we are at through the effects that the arrival of the “Great Recession” from Sea to Shining Sea–and the centers of work that continue to exist across the Home of the Brave.

Before examining the maps of those out of work in America, the contours of such a map suggests one of the backgrounds for the reception of the internet economy and digital revolution that may reveal the special appeal of the somewhat illusory notion that the web promises the coming generation of a wave of new jobs.  While the internet has been blessed as a solace to the out of work, transformed by alchemy of the world wide web into blissed-out surfers putting their time into online betting and social networking sites, net advocates insist on potential economic benefits of the new cultural commons of “prosumers” that lies on the horizons of our backlit lives.  The foreseeing of a massive expansion of the DIY economy as part of a “Third Industrial Revolution” that is to be unleashed on the internet will not only provide a basis for reunderstanding the energy grid; for many, new sites of trading and commerce–on Etsy or other virtual marketplaces–has spontaneously generated claims for the benefits of such new platforms for marketing creativity that will work to make folks feel valued and great about both their “work” and themselves.  Yet Sue Halpern found these claims quite creepy in their unstated underside, not often mentioned by enthusiasts such as Jeremy Rifkin who prophesies a Third Industrial Revolution of clean energy and renewable resources across the globe:   for the link between the internet and a new “energy paradigm” in the new industrial revolution of an “energy internet,” may well augur a day when workers may not only be increasingly replaced by machines, as the internet decouples productivity from human work, but, more insidiously, e-commerce creates the illusion of productive engagement:  “a do-it-yourself subculture is thriving, and sharing cars, tools, houses, and other property is becoming more common, [but] it is also true that much of this activity is happening under duress as steady employment disappears.”  (While 60 million consumers interact with Etsy, Amanda Hess found that 65% of sellers made more than $100 last year.  Compared to the 5,000,000 jobs that Slate‘s Associate Editor Chris Wilson mapped as vanishing from 2008 to 2009 presented a devastating picture of job-loss, barely compensated by talk of the growth of online sellers and small-scale Amazonians.)  This new sense of “work” is not only based on the distractions of web-surfing and the rise of private activities completed during working time in offices, sometimes up to average time spent on private activities at work is between 1.5 and three hours a day., and even the conclusion that 70 percent of internet traffic to pornographic sites during what seem working hours, and the majority of online purchases (up to 60%) from a similar 9-5 timeframe.  But the illusory jobs and increased appearance of engagement that the internet nourishes seems as important to acknowledge in describing the radical redefinition of work in America.  The apparent addiction to such “involuntary slacking” seems to demand attention as an important counterpart to the shifting geography of work in the United States.

What happened in the dire picture of a loss of five million jobs that he presented of national decline that began from roughly when, in what one can’t feel is a coincidental metric, President Obama took office, and we faced our greatest threat of economic downturn in many years?




The image of economic implosion, or decline in job growth in 2008, two years after the Recession had officially begun, offers a map of the points of local vulnerability to job losses that contrasts with the earlier maps of job growth, and seems like a job-loss virus, spreading from centers of past urban growth, in ways that augur something like a national decline:  the northeast and northern California are deep red, as is the former industrial midwest around Detroit, and the Northwest doesn’t seem to be doing better.  Texas, almost alone with Vermont, for some reason, has spots of blue.  It is not surprising that the Wired map was quickly taken up by Fox News:  the spread of scarlet sink-holes of job-depletion across the continent, radiating out into its surrounding waters, offers a vision of apocalypticism that “others” the continent from a geographic land mass.  The medium of the data visualization offers a snapshot of the status quo sending shivers down one’s spine, jointly suggesting a draining of jobs from the national economy and raising questions about its future.

The image is striking, and drowning in large circles of red, denoting job loss, with small spots of bright blue standing like beacons of hope, but a larger scale image of the shifting growth of unemployment rates over the decade from a Public Policy research team, Mathematica, using statistics from the Census and Dept. of Labor, crafts a far more finely grained picture of national losses from 2000 to 2013, less mired in a feeling of depression and more legible both it int texture and county-by-county specifics that might tell us more:

County Unemployemnt Rate


even if the snapshot map taken in a single year, as 2010, when unemployment was high, revealed a dire deal indeed:


2010 USA


The flat opacity that these data visualizations track, rather than inviting us to contemplate a graphic prospectus of the future, provide a snapshot of relative poverty before which we stand aghast.

The internet has arrived not only as the time-suck from productivity that we’ve all, unconsciously, suspected, but with the promise of a possibility for fashioning new jobs that would lift us from the Great Recession.  Despite the deepest claims that internet commerce provides the opportunity to unleash a new level of contact with consumers and wave of independent sales, it may well be, although it is quite hard to confirm, that the amount of time spent online is something somewhat correlated to the new appearance of folks who are taking steps to leave the workforce, and find solace online, removed from the workplace environments that can provide a somewhat comforting cocoon.  The hope of Jeremy Rifkin that Halpern wryly characterizes as a “vision that people will occupy themselves with more fulfilling activities like making music and self-publishing novels once they are freed from work” exposes the possibility that the internet offers an odd outlet for dropping out of the marketplace.  For while it may be but a coincidence, the shifting geography of being out-of-work, the long-term decline of the American workforce found an interesting outlet for self-promotion and self-fashioning on the internet that Jeremy Rifkin, Lawrence Lessig, and others promise.  But including this image of the economy, or even its economic potential, is almost seems inversely proportioned in its difficult to map compared to the trumpet its benefits.

For the expansion of such self-made businesses or “trade venues” on the web parallel a search to innovate by folks who have been marginalized from or forced to leave the labor force in ways that our statistics of unemployment as reported widely do not fully capture–we must begin by taking stock of the fact that a broad measure of unemployment rose .  To begin to get a handle on our national quagmire of the out work, we need to compute alternative measures of unemployment, however, noting the depressing picture including a broad measure of unemployment computed by the Labor Department to include marginally attached workers–which rose far more than official unemployment rate defined as those looking for work, as Brendan Saloner noted in 2010–even if that rate has now declined to below 6% once again, rather than not budging from 9.6% as was then the case.  The distribution of such a broad measure of underemployment (or unemployment) had striking national variabilities in 2010, focussing on metropolitan areas alone.


Moving a bit forward in time, the New York Times and Economist noted the importance of considering regional disparities in the “Great Recession” by 2011, noting areas where unemployment crested to 20%–


Geograph of a Recession



–which boasted marked declines in unemployment across much of the country for the first time, save in those places deeply effected by the housing bubble, including California, Florida and Nevada, and those regions whose ingrown unemployment was brought by declining industry, such as Pennsylvania or Indiana:


from June '10

New York Times


The picture of relative discrepancies in the specific areas where national employment rates crested above 20% in some areas, or unemployment stubbornly refused to decrease, presents a picture can be interestingly fit into the long-term decline of the workforce in America, the journalist and historian Yoni Appelbaum has argued.  The long-term decline matches a growing share of the male population who need help or are paying taxes, Appelbaum found, which has wrought considerable social changes in our attitudes toward work and workplaces, independently from the “Great Recession.”  Indeed, the shifting geography of the out of work between the ages of 25 and 54 across the nation  provides a similar distribution of deep valleys.  The nation-wide rise in the numbers of out of work men raise interesting questions about what folks are doing with their time, and what sustains attention at a time of disengagement from the economic marketplace.  Men are not, here, taken as the metonymy for human, but describe a deep change in the status quo which may well suggest the feeling of remove from those technological sectors where the economy has grown, and goes beyond a decline in job creation in specific areas across the United States, that may reflect a geography of desperation and alienation independent from the creation of further jobs.  While the prognosis is not warranted from the map alone, the rise of such out of work men, who either elect to leave the workforce or adopt the classification as disabled, creates a distinct culture in specific cities and regions unlike one of competition for existing jobs, that may pose deep threats for the economy and indeed for public health.

While somewhat like the long-term unemployment rates in its complexure, the distinct nature of the pockets of out of work men are removed from the labor market, and present a topography of what might be called disengagement, if one would not rather use terms without moral judgement. While the two issues are closely tied, the specificity of the map of men out of work map seems striking in its greater demographic specificity.

Men Not Working Map

New York Times/Yoni Applebaum


In ways that seem paralleled by the number of women who are leaving the workforce of the same ages, and to illustrate a deep shift of the culture of work, “working, in America, is in decline,” as Appelbaum put it.  Is this major and ongoing shift in how we relate to work, deeply linked to the rise of the disaffection of many from an existing labor market sen too removed from one’s own self-valuation, or perhaps below one’s competence, the expansion of those outside the workforce, male and female–the non-employed, including disabled or with compensation, make up over an eight of the entire adult US population, include students and those retired, but only 25% are classified as unemployed.



Almost independently from “unemployment” per se, the sector of such non-employed between ages 25 and 54 seems particularly unhealthy for the nation, and difficult to explain–as is their apparent geographic clustering.  Only just over half say that their jobs ended with the last recession of December 2007 (61%), but an eighth (13%) claim never to have had a full-time job, suggesting that they are probably on the younger end of the age spectrum.

Why not work, despite the clear adverse psychological and personal effects of such an apparent decision or perceived inability to change one’s condition?  Greater risk for substance abuse, alcoholism, depression–widely recognized as both costly and debilitating–and documented difficulties to create stable relationships.  The choice that men make not to work–or to join a workforce which is still looking to hire–indeed raises questions about families and psychological health, and about the perceived place of the individual in the social world.   But the geography of this decision or lack of apparent incentive to join the workforce that Appelbaum found particularly striking, almost approaches a collective paralysis or depression, if with distinct underlying causes, that in aggregate particularly plagues specific areas of the country–areas associated, to be sure, often with economic decline, but also which seem swamps of unsuccessful stories and narratives, and invites new narratives to be told about maps.  But the poverty of information in the data visualization, whose focus on the present status quo offers only a concentration on the short-term, seems something of an evacuation of information from the map, and demands to be supplemented by greater detail to better grasp the distribution it seeks to define.  Looking for further dimensionality of the data it presents, one is tempted to seek correlations in the flat colors of comparable datasets to find what narratives might emerge from the flat visual surfaces that are presented in the amnesiac surfaces of the data visualizations.

One might start from comparing, for example, to the short-term snapshots of depression according to a Behavioral Risk Surveillance System.  Although the broad geographic parameters of this 2010 map issued by the CDC doesn’t offer comparable fine-grained detail, and both leaves many interesting areas without data (Kentucky) and shows significantly elevated rates of depression across the Old South, it suggests contours of depression across the country, particularly dense in spots of long term out-of-workness from West Virginia–if data lacks for Kentucky–Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Tennessee, where it crested above 10%:




But the map unsurprisingly more closely correlates in select regions with the recent Newsweek “Health Gap” that combines mental health and college attendance with other variables of 2014, which uses data from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute–even if that map is not really surprising, and seems to square with a remove from health care, in its clustering on the Mississippi, western Kentucky, and parts of northern Floridam with the Nevada part of the Four Corners and northern New Mexico:



The distribution of the out-of-work male offers a fascinating new subject of mapping, since its distribution seems defined distinctly from the mapping of areas of economic growth, unemployment, or taxation, and suggests a local acceptance of the very demographic category of being out of work.

While we’re at it, of course, we might ask to parse the national distribution of unemployed men along both socioeconomic background and ethnicity, if only to see the results–but these seem to be beyond the point, which is the disquieting nature of the prominence of the category of not seeing oneself as a part of the workforce.  For if there are slightly more non-employed who are African American (14 percent versus 10 percent) or Hispanic (20 percent versus 15 percent), a majority (above 54%) have only a high school education or less, and seem as if our society has failed them–only one fifth have graduated from a 4-year college, in contrast to almost 40% percent of full-time workers, and the disconnect between work and education seems a clearer metric than all else, and their health, as self-reported, is predictably bad–suggesting the possibility of looming considerable social and personal costs, and a great crisis in public health, even if among the non-employed, some 74% affirmed that they have health insurance.  Yet it is conspicuous that one-fifth of non-employed have completed a college degree–even if, perhaps, only recently.

This relatively large number of college graduates who are not able to find work casts a ray of light at the deep depression that might result of being without work, and a paralyzing uncomprehending sense of inadequacy.

The below map offers a compelling mirror of society, and of the long-term difficulties we face.  For the distribution “men not working” is laden with both deep levels of depression, anxiety, and economic despair difficult to process fully, whose apparent uneven distribution and pockets of deep concentration that amazingly surpass 33% suggest the seriously impacted problems of how we define work and occupation today.  The concentration of select areas of dark blue seem swamps of something akin to despair–located around the “Four Corners” and border of New Mexico and Arizona; Southern Oregon; western Montana; northern California; Appalachia; and areas of the Deep South; southern Florida–that seem sights that are sinking, if not almost disappearing, as if potholes of personal futures, off the road map of the common good. These darkly colored regions, off the main highways of America, are less traveled areas, but inescapable parts of our nation’s economy.  Unlike the map of of unemployment for metropolitan areas, some of the most difficult regions of the persistence of men out of work appear at a remove from cities–although the maps use different indices. they suggest similar pictures of the difficulties in the topography of job creation.


Men Not Working Map

Percent Legend


New York Times/Yoni Appelbaum


The local dips in sectors of the nations reveal dark spots in the national economy that can only haunt us.  The metrics of not working men is striking, particularly as the dark green blotches in southern Oregon, northern New Mexico, Appalachia, or parts of Idaho convey a grim desperation of economic displacement, and almost communicate a sense of being left behind.  Is there an odd acceptance of a dark status quo in these areas, where with something like almost half of adult men not at all working leads to a labor market that can almost never be met, and a paralysis of looking for jobs, or actually imagining alternative signs of success?

The region in Northern California, for example, suggests a desperation at the lack of employment opportunities that leads a hazy air of diminished expectations to hang over the land.  The SAMSHA map of sub-state variations of substance abuse using data available online maps a picture disconcertingly parallel in several of its pockets, particularly much of northern California and the Florida Panhandle, but also the Four Corners and Colorado, and LA, although what, exactly, “abuse” is here needs to be examined defined:



We can see a raging 5.1% dependence on or abuse of alcohol in south-central Kentucky, abuse of drugs in Western Massachusetts, on the level of Washington DC, and similarly high levels by the Mexican border in Arizona.   Each of these areas is to some extent echoed in the map of the men who are out of the labor market and not working:  only North Dakota and Iowa seem to be showing low levels of abuse in the years before 2010, which can’t make one feel great about the country, even if the bright red spots in Oklahoma and Idaho come at considerable surprise.

Alcohol dependency seems to be more striking in Northern Central California, Idaho and Montana, and northern states like South Dakota and Minnesota, although Utah is very dry.



But the relation to the out-of-work seems particularly keen and in demand of excavating from the staid surface of the data visualization of local variations in the sustained spread of substance abuse.

Applbaum’s county-by-county visualization offers an inviting grounds for exploration, due perhaps to the appeal of the palate he uses to denote the out-of-work by deepening shades of green and dark blue to denote those men who are out of work, and the apparent narratives that the resulting distribution offers one to spin out of it:  the often opaque surface of such data visualizations seems sensitive to discrepancies in quality of life and the changing ways to spend time that result from such a lack of work.  For example, the rough terrain near to Mendocino, land of spectacularly stupendous ocean views, conceals a growing desperation among numbers of the of sustained employment in several inland areas in California, if not along its coast.



Men not Working Mendocino

Percent LegendNew York Times


Such troughs across the county suggest  a dramatically diminished range of expectations that poorly communicate a future life.  This might be increasingly true of urban areas, where lack of employment seems often endemic in some neighborhoods of Los Angeles, which pop out of a broader map of the city.


LAPercent LegendNew York  Times


Moving to a broader geographic area, however, the region of the Four Corners together with spots from the Central Valley seem similarly pock-marked with diminished hopes and lowered expectations of arriving at a permanent job, creating what seem swamps of underemployment in parts of the Southwest, where low numbers of working men in large stretches of the country create a striking culture of unwork:


four corners and central valleyPercent LegendNew York Times


the number of men who are not working creates pronounced disequilibria of employment across the economy, and indeed a radically diminished expectation of one’s sense of an active life, let alone retirement.

While rural Appalachia seems one thing, the pockets of men outside the workforce across South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, as well as parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, presents a dire image of a lack of available jobs that correlates interestingly with the refusal to accept National Health Care, and extend to the coast of the Florida panhandle.  Concentrated communities of men not looking for work along the shoreline of the southern states in the Carolinas raise questions of the geography of the out of work.



Percent LegendNew York Times


While we are only tracking men, such potholes of local employment suggest something like low-income clusters, and support groups of the economically alienated, which have no clear or immediate resolution in sight, but seems somehow, one worries, to perpetuate its own existential condition.

The notion of being left behind by a job market, or not being able to integrate within an existing workplace, with little way out, seems to be a central issue in the landscape of heightened disparities that remains.  While it demands far further study and individual local examination, the terrain often seems interminably bleak.  There is the prospect that we are in the process of a broad redefining of work, and of the working landscape, but there are plenty other areas lying outside that changing landscape of work that seem to be left out.  Our changing landscape of employment may be left at the doorstep of a changing national character, but suggests a deep divergence across the country in seeing oneself as a head of households, and of realistic economic expectations.

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualizations, Great Recession, infographics, mapping men without work, mapping the "Great Recession", mapping the not working, unemployment, Unemployment in America, unwork

A Newly Divided City? Ranked Choice Voting and Urban Affluence in Oakland, CA

The recent election of a new mayor in Oakland, California, raises interesting questions of political pluralism, and how the expanding cast of characters who are able to declare their candidacy for the position of a diverse very diverse city contributes to the place of minority rights in contemporary America.  For though divisions between neighborhoods and districts within the recent mayoral election, organized by the relatively new practice of Ranked Choice Voting–hence RCV–invited voters to select their three top choices, the flexibility that the policy of such “ranked” voting is intended to afford may have become a way to disguise the deep social and economic divisions to which the city is in danger of becoming habituated.

If one looks at the map created after the election, by the Registrar of Voter’s Jeremy Dupuis, what sort of text that the divisions between different first-choice votes for Oakland mayor present of the city and its changing social composition?  The question is striking if only because of the sophistication with which the recent RCV mayoral ballot created of the city’s changing demographic composition.  How the ranking of candidates in a ballot of fifteen choices seems to orient the viewer not only to voting preferences but the contrasts of the changing social composition of Oakland as a whole–and raises questions of how minority interests and deep social and educational differences can be adequately registered in any election.  Indeed, in a city like Oakland, deemed by the centrist Brookings Institution quite recently the seventh most unequal city in the United States, as a result of its recent gentrification, the jury is out as to whether Ranked Choice Voting has unintentionally increased the city’s increasingly pronounced social fissures.  With RCV having elicited some ten candidates for mayor in 2010, leading to a nail-biter of a conclusion in which the lead vote-getter of first-place choices lost in the final tally of ranked ballots, the list of candidates grew to fifteen by 2014.

Based on not-yet-certified but complete numbers, the distribution of first-place votes for Libby Schaff was concentrated in the hills and surrounding areas–Districts 1 and 4–the closeness of the race in other urban areas were often conditioned by low turnout, perhaps by suspicion of the voting system, and mirror the persistence of social a deeply divided city, where pockets of separate constituencies offered little credible challenges, but consensus was far from absolute.  While Schaff was the top vote-getter by far, her lack of contact with many residents in other precincts of the city suggests a division around lines of prosperity particularly troubling to the city.  Did RCV help encourage an already deep divisions in the electorate?


A Divided CityTom Dupuis/Oakland Registrar of Voters


1.  The selection of a mayor by RCV ballot was a fascinating opportunity to forge consensus across the city’s diverse neighborhoods, long divided by vested interests.  But the divisions between candidates orients viewers to a social topography that speaks volumes to the difficulty of imagining a relation to public space in Oakland, CA.  It indeed speaks to the increased withdrawing of urban neighborhoods from a shared public space in the city:  despite the assembly of a strong victory by a former City Council member who attracted just under 30% of first-place votes in a very crowded field, Libby Schaaf, the distribution of what regions chose Schaaf first suggests something of the difficulty voters faced in coming to a consensus, or collectively get behind one candidate to address the city’s interests, although RCV was adopted to elect the mayor of Oakland since 2010 as a way to make all votes heard in the city–and prevent voters from worries that candidates would cancel out each other’s votes.  One of the prime issues about which Schaaf and a crowded field of fourteen other mayoral candidates jousted was the question of how to reconcile the presence of poorer neighborhoods–40% of whose residents live below the poverty line, and are traditionally less likely to express their voice at the ballot–and the high (perhaps highest in the country) per capita rate of recorded robberies.  Indeed, the daunting unemployment rate of 11%, substantially higher than the national rate of 7%, and markedly greater than the region rate of 5% in a metropolitan area with San Francisco and Fremont, in ways that mirror a tendency to find more long-term unemployment in western states and urban areas since 2007.  (Given the substantially greater chances of long-term unemployment among blacks and those without high school diplomas, and as underemployment among blacks hovers at 20%, according to the National Urban League, Oakland seems a tempest waiting to occur.

Even a Google Map distribution reveals drastically developing disequilibria in the correlation between families living in poverty and death rates in Oakland–


Deaths:Poverty in Oakland

or Oaklanders’ statistical life expectancy, according to statistics of the Alameda County Office of Public Health–


life expectancy


How likely does the notion of creating common grounds within a city of such drastically divided life-situations, and does the expansion of possible mayoral candidates in fact give most Oaklanders a clearer political voice?  By reading the screenshot of the interactive map released by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters shown in this post’s header in relation to a range of open data on the city’s population, and specifically to fear of crime in the city’s affluent areas, this post tries to suggest that deep divisions in fact continued to animate the ways that candidates courted votes of precise demographics, and indeed how RCV reveals that the city broke behind candidates in distinct socioeconomic groupings.

The concentration of better health and high employment in specific areas and neighborhoods of the city poses steep challenges for creating common political priorities for the city.  If income inequality have expanded in urban areas across the nation–



the question of how our political systems will best accommodate or respond to these inequalities poses a dilemma of national import:  will the voices of poorer voters be marginalized from elected offices, or better leverage power in a simple majority vote?   and what candidacies and platforms can our electoral system work to best foster?  Particularly striking is the clear parallel–unintentional, no doubt, on the part of the Registrar of Voters or the mapmaker, Tim Dupuis, of light pea-green first-place votes for Schaff, and the deeply engrained social divisions that remain from the HOLC map of Oakland residences, dating from a very different historical era which, in today’s society, one would not like to remember, but whose historic persistence continued effects on the city’s economic division cannot be denied.


Oakland Votes 2014


Oakland-Berkeley HOLC



Despite the clearer lines of dominant voter preference the Dupuis’ interactive map reveals, the echo of the divisions in the historical HOLC map of Oakland, indicating regions regarded as being of worthy investment and refinancing suggests a record differentiated attitudes to the role of local government.  Indeed, the persistence of these divisions in voting tendencies, level of education achieved, income, and home ownership in the East Bay contrast dramatically to the recent rewriting of the historical topography of regions of redlining in much of the downtown area of nearby San Francisco–even if the city shares its own dramatic inequalities around Hunter’s Point:


SF Redlining


The apparent parsing of the vote along lines of demographic difference in Oakland’s recent RCV mayoral election enabled the historical splits in the city to be placed in prominent relief, as the dominance of hills’ voters, buoyed by a broader urban prosperity, fragmented the interests of a divided electorate in the city’s lower-income areas.  Despite some measured analysis of “how complicated the election’s outcome really was,” the splintering of votes that it reveals suggests deep fault lines that further public data can help to unpack–and suggest the deep role that fear and fears of the need of greater policing played in determining the voter turnout in an election that was long close in the polls, and even at some date deemed a “toss up” with almost 40% undecided, and Schaff in third place, before she received Jerry Brown’s October endorsement.

What can the division of voting preferences in the Registrar’s map tell us about how voters’  selections were made to create the appearance of a landslide among fifteen candidates?


2.  Dupuis’ interactive map breaks into the first-place votes that dominated individual neighborhoods of the city in ways that raise questions about how individual candidates addressed  the needs of the city as a whole.  The “nuanced glimpse” it has been vaunted to offer of Oakland might be best analyzed through an exercise  of “distanced reading” of the trends in the urban populations it helps unpack. The geographic distribution of local consensus is communicated to a great extent in the division of first-place votes for mayor of Oakland in the recent mayoral election of 2014.  While we often discuss ‘data scraping‘ as a way of extracting information from computer files in a format that is easily readable and interpreted by human readers, the point of this post is to “scrape” the  screenshot of first selections of candidates in ways that read its results in more problematic ways in relation to a variety of open data already compiled about Oakland–and often translated to readable visual form.

Much as “web-scraping” aims to transform unstructured data on the web into structured data able to be more readily analyzed and examined, this post tries to unpack the screenshot of voters’ preferences as a guide to orient viewers to the city’s changing social topography, and ask what the striking homology between voting preferences and urban fears means for Oakland as a city.  For a distanced reading might constitute “screen scraping” the distribution of votes, without querying its actual data, statistical basis, or programming, to analyze the image of the city’s divisions that the screenshot captures and even the visual modes by which it presents voters’ primary choice for mayor in 2014 as a reflection of the new social character of Oakland’s urban space.  Although the symbolic forms by which it reveals what seems to be a decisive electoral victory, the data that it offers can be usefully situated in relation to a range of sources of open data on the city’s changing character.  Rather than adopt the practice of “scraping” the image as a metaphorical strategy alone, such “screen scraping” aims to render more legible the data overlays that the screenshot of voting choices suggests by placing it in relation to other images based on open data.  For whereas most city maps celebrate harmony, indeed, the screenshot reveals deep and clear rifts–and oddly lends  prominence to the very socioeconomic and cultural divisions which voting seeks to mask or symbolically elide.

Geographical maps create diverse texts for viewers, the distribution or data visualization of first-place votes across the city provides an opportunity to read the particularly challenging question of representing the political priorities and preferences of different districts in the city in a single elected official.  As much as the distribution of Oakland’s first-place votes have provoked insights into Libby Schaaf’s popularity, it deserves to occasion further considerations of how the plurality she assembled, if numerically far beyond the vote counts of other candidates, is based on the new divisions by which the city may be plagued.  The big “light green doughnut” overlay in the screenshot of the ‘map’ the Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tom Dupuis called a “treasure trove for anyone interested in examining the nuances of the election outcome or Oakland’s current political landscape” reveals less of a stable landscape, than reflects uneasy relations among Oakland’s inhabitants and divisions in education, economic well-being, and access to safe housing with which the city struggles.  Dupuis’ carefully upbeat rhetoric belies the deep rifts that political representatives of the city will need to address.

Schaaf’s strong finish marked something of a swing back along the pendulum between Oakland moderates and progressives.  The distribution registers a new direction for the electorate, based on the selection of someone who defined herself apart from local interests in Oakland:  Schaaf’s candidacy attracted a unique clustering stretching from the districts in the hills to the area around downtown and Lake Merritt but reflects the rising home values in Oakland geography which have radically redrawn its political geography.  As the below maps reveals, ongoing processes of rapid gentrification has occurred not only in the Lower Hills of Oakland, but in North Oakland, and “early stage” gentrification has begun in much of the city, even as “Middle Stage” is noted in the Dimond district and areas formerly rundown.  The below 2013 map of “Stages of Gentrification” in the Bay Area is worthy of attention as of 2013 is perhaps most interesting for how it orients us to levels of gentrification from San Francisco to the East Bay.  But the consequences of such steep demographic changes have effectively shifted the political topography of Oakland in ways that bring to the surface new stresses on attitudes to public space–and of politically confronting the deep socioeconomic problems of infrastructure, prison recidivism, low high school graduation and high truancy rates, and placing other urban issues on the front burner of local politics, all visible in the American Community Survey.


Gentrification Map of 2013


The issues that dominated the recent mayoral election were not any of the above, but rather “public safety”, which became a central issue along which candidates strove to distinguish themselves:  the hot-button issue provoked the fears of a growing section of the voting population about living in an urban space, indeed, and revealed an increased desire to retreat from public space in ways that seemed to underserve the city as a whole.  The long, green corridor spooling over the complex contours of the districts that ring the polity of Piedmont reveals how support for Schaaf rested in the Hills regions, migrating to the more affluent areas of Oakland, where residents were drawn by her positive trumpeting of a focus on crime–without raising the spectra of criminality and its containment, as the more moderate candidates, or addressing the low rates of graduation from the city’s high schools, the impact of prison recidivism and the revolving door of incarceration, or poor health.

The annulus of light pea-green first-place votes cast or Schaaf crest around the independent city of Piedmont, a tree-lined residential area separately incorporated since 1907,  over 75% self-identifying as white, suggest a division between hills and flats that is not absolute, but indicates a troubling story about the difficulties of bringing a range of necessary issues to the forefront of the mayoral election–and the problems of finding a mayor for the entire city–and suggests uneven values of urban realty, more than a basis for civic concord.  The districts in the hills around Piedmont–one; four; and two, in clockwise order–created a growing division in the city’s districting that


Crest of Green





The colors chosen to designate those areas where Shaff won a first-place finish oddly echo the semantics of the USGS coloration of the topography of the city:





But while both these maps show the green areas of Redwood Regional Park on the cit’s borders, the suburban leafiness of the park captures the areas where Schaff’s candidacy did best raises questions of growing divisions among the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

Oakland’s uneven economic topography creates distinct problems of forging political consensus of its own.  But does the proliferation of political perspectives that the alternate selections encouraged by Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), used to elect the mayor of Oakland since 2010, but still occasioning considerable confusion at the polls, demand that voters familiarize themselves with a range of candidates in ways that tend to further segment and sectors its voters?Despite the well-intentioned hopes to allow all votes to “speak” at the polls, the deep fear that RCV has narrowed the expansion of political involvement of voters, and increased the appeal to local constituencies to create a clear plurality, bodes badly for the cultivation of the city’s public space.  Selecting Oakland’s mayor has followed guidelines adopted with a range of California cities since 2006, but may do a deep disservice to expressing the public interest:  rather than selecting one preferred candidate, voters are invited to list their top four preferred choices.

But we lack a suitably adequate legend legend to read first-place votes distribution in the mayoral election.  Even as we’re compelled to acknowledge that even with just a hair below 30% of the first-place votes–at 29.43%–Schaff won almost twice as many first-place votes as the second-place current outgoing mayor, Jean Quan–a former school board member and community activist, whose local image as a leftist was tarnished both due to budget shortfalls and as both soft on crime and too ineffective or just nervous in allowing a police crackdown of the Occupy Movement (in ways she would regret).  (The response of collective dissatisfaction led the former community activist to move toward the political center, and to so vilify Quan to organize a recall effort that long stymied the end of her term, and divided the city’s politics with considerable vitriol and dissensus to levels which almost obscured serious political debate in the mayoral election.


3.  The difficulty of building political consensus in the city was however also not served by Ranked Voter Choice.  Indeed, the encouragement that it gave multiple politicians to declare their candidacy not only obscured the major issues facing the city, but seems to have effectively allowed a relatively small share of the electorate to choose the election’s result, which damaged the possibility for the mayor to forge close ties to the city’s diverse groups.  In ways that seem perilous for the public good or city’s representation, the contraction of issues at stake in an RCV election may have increased the splintering of the city into separate constituencies, ill-suited to meet its varied needs.  As a result of the division in the electorate, it often seems that issues as growing prison recidivism, public maintenance, poor health care and high drop-out rates or the public transit system and housing seem to be abandoned or suppressed, and the issues of crime assume a prominence as “public safety” issues that it’s questionable that a mayor can address:  the odd circumlocution, claimed to be the focus of multiple candidates and several forums, and redefined as a prominent top issue with the prominent emergence of multiple private security firms across several city neighborhoods, have used the construction of “public safety” to divide the city’s public good in profound ways.  For did the circulation of the issue of “public safety”–a term bandied about in the election a sort of code name for urban fear–create the decisive geography by which districts that lent their first-place votes?

To be sure, the division of political interests in Oakland tend left collectively, even more than in other metropolitan areas, but the city is also an odd microcosm of the sort of schizoid politics that have come to characterize California as a whole, which, rather than a reliably “red” or “blue” state, while voting Democratic in presidential and national elections, tends much more deeply blue along its semi-urbanized coast, and turns deep red in its interior.


Deep Blue Coast
But the process of “Ranked Choice Voting” was intended to ensure that in the deep blue of the Bay Area, no candidates would effectively cancel one another out, by dividing the ballot, by allowing each voter who fully grasped the system to cast three ranked votes for a single office.

The adoption of the practice of “Ranked Choice Voting“(RCV) was approved in 2006, when Oaklanders approved the electoral law  to involve the electorate and prevent the eventuality of a splintering the vote.  The measure was introduced after considerable frustration that voices of the electorate were not being heard when the example of Al Gore and Ralph Nader competed for votes against George W. Bush in the 2000 Presidential election:   although California’s northern coast is solidly Democratic in voting, the deep debates about what counts as progressive is particularly heated in the Bay Area.  The combination of a dramatic expansion of declared candidates for mayor–ten by 2010, rising to fifteen in 2014–combined with historically low voter turnout in a city of uneven education and political mobilization–creates problems of not increasing a field of candidates who are linked to districts’ specific interests–and indeed to the competition for scarce resources by city districts. Although RCV was blamed for how the majority first-choice candidate of 2010, Don Perata, was upset by the preponderance of second-choice votes for Quan, as ballots were reallocated after the candidates were eliminated.  The strong number of second-place votes cast for Schaaf in 2014 cemented her recent victory in ways that legitimated the first-place choice of a small, and socio-economically distinct, sector of the city.

The election of 2000 raised the fear that one’s vote would not influence the final tally, as well as encourage the unwanted election of a Republican President, and fed a deep frustration at single-candidate voting and  led folks to search for mathematical alternatives to count votes that would both to preserve every voter’s voice and prevent a “wasted” vote.  But the institution of RCV is still being assessed, and its implementation demands to be considered in how it plays out in different situations.  For the practice demands a literacy with the new form of the ballot, unclear in a city like Oakland, where its adoption moreover does not seem to have helped to manufacture consensus, plagued by both deep divisions of interests difficult to reconcile and dercreased involvement of voters in elections, both magnified by fears and by growing socio-economic divides.  It seems to create a problem of mapping the social space onto a political space of representation, complicated by the fact worst turnout for a November mayoral election since they started in 1990, about 14% lower than in 2010, and an estimated 55.7% of residents’ registration in time to vote.  Oakland has been long, divided, to be sure, by special interests and local constituencies, as well as by corrupt politicians who have manipulated these divisions to their benefit.  The move away from the city’s divided path will be long.  But compelling questions are raised of healing exacerbated socioeconomic divisions, as well as reducing special interests, by the very fact that so small a portion of the city’s residents decided the election, where lower than 35% voted for the current Mayor-elect, can represent a small part of the city and the city as a problem in microcosm of the alienation from American politics.  (Dissatisfaction with how a hiving off of some neighborhoods from others led many to try to remap Oakland’s districts to create a greater ethnic and racial–and economic–balance led local journo-cartographer Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor to try to puzzle out a more equitable proportional mapping of districts based on the 2010 Census by shifting boundaries to cross hills and flatlands.

Whereas district topographies work to preserve specific enclaves in some fashion, and partition hills from what were predominantly urban areas–


Seven Districts in Oak


–the proposal to expand districts bordering Piedmont to embrace more of the area of West Oakland and to shift East Oakland to embrace parts of the hills stemmed form an attempt to gain districts of better ethnic and economic balance:




The perception of clear tensions among the city’s districts leads to direct competition for schooling, policing, and other resources, but the proposal was not adopted, and the economic growth of districts 1, 2 and 4 create a new division of property in the city.

Did the adoption of instant run-off voting, which places a focus on a general election in which candidates compete to be individually ranked by all voters, best respond to the steep socioeconomic divisions of the city?


Oakland 2014 mayoral


Does the institution of RCV, which invites a plurality of candidates to declare themselves for individual interests, encourage political fragmentation in a city long-known for its moderate-leftist divides?  Does RCV invite a more democratic process or accentuate a proclivity to create distinctly self-interested voting blocks?  The light-green ocean that seems to float over the city in the above screenshot encircles the hived-off city of Piedmont, long separate from the city, defining the range of districts where Oakland’s mayor-elect of Oakland became the first-place choice; their uniformity contrasts to the range of candidates that appealed to specific sectors of the city.  The expanding slate of mayoral Democratic candidates reflected the scuttling of the primary in favor of a system of selecting three top candidates out of a field, progressively eliminating those candidates receiving the least votes from a final tally, reassigning votes based on second- or third-choice selections.

The coalition Schaff successfully assembled across select neighborhoods primarily seems to have responded to a narrative of increased policing and of maintaining “public safety”–as well as a compelling promise to sustain increased government transparency of ‘open’ government to relieve a city long plagued and divided by special interests.  But addressing a distinct sector of Oakland may come with costs.  What can the divided nature of first-place choices tell us of the challenges that any future mayor will face in assembling local consensus across the city?  While the practice ensures all voices of voters are expressed in the final result, the almost topographic variations of elevation along which the city vote split raises questions about how RCV encouraged the city’s votes to break along interested lines, and if it offers the be the best way of creating consensus in the field.  Oakland’s rapidly transforming economy–much of which has driven the current economic boom–created unintended synergy with the possibility to elect the mayor by a plurality which, while thought the best path to create consensus in a diverse city, may exacerbate the deeper and more salient divisions in the city’s economy.  The division to an extent creates an apparently legible manner that the city divided along partisan lines in casting its first choice votes, based on the different interests that each candidate reflected and with which local residents identified, raising questions of how Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods translate into a coherent political space.


4.  Before investigating the above screenshot of how first votes were cast tells us about the division of Oakland’s votes on clear lines, and lets us examine how the institution of Ranked Choice Voting decided the mayoralty on second- and third-place votes, and unpack the fracture lines in the above map by a range of open data of the election, and of the shifting political topography of a city riven by educational and economic divisions in ways that make consensus difficult to define in the city across the bay.


Boland's Oakland Transit Map



The innovative institution of Ranked Choice Voting , or RCV, asks voters to select their top choices, to be counted in rounds of successive elimination of candidates obtaining the fewest votes–forgoing a preliminary two-party primary before a General Election.  By inviting voters to consider all candidates to select three top choices, the adoption of RCV tacitly encouraged a broad range of candidates to declare their candidacy, and helped five candidates continue their races until Election day–ranked voting had been decisive in the results of the 2010 election, and polls were hesitant to predict how the selection of second and third choices might alter a field where candidates hovered around 20% commitment.  But the mechanics of reassigning votes in RCV became problematic in a year of historically low voter turnout–when the approximate percentage of Oaklanders turning up at the polls of 45% seemed consistent with a dramatically low turnout statewide of only 46%.  The institution depends on familiarity with its practice:  voters who stay home from Ranked Choice ballots not only find their votes discounted, but voters fail to complete the selection of three candidates, find their first choice is eliminated and vote effectively discounted–creating potential difficulties of silencing voters unfamiliar with the system, or seeking to use it in the most advantageous manner.

But the importance of receiving broad responses for the ballot–shown here with instructions– depends on the voters’  close attention to the candidates, essentially a good thing, and overcoming the possibility that a new ballot alienated some.  The likelihood voters treated their ballot strategically as an opportunity to cast a symbolic or sympathetic vote, reserving their more practical vote for second-place vote,  created a the possibility of a distinct difference in how voters approached their ballots across the city’s different economic classes and view the ballot as making a calculated selection corresponding to their interests.  It also means that the variety of candidates create a unique opportunity to look at how Oakland votes, which the remainder of this post will try to examine, comparing a range of open data visualizations to examine the underside of the distribution of the vote.




In inviting voters to select four top preferences among the candidates.  By dispensing with a primary, it opens up the possibility of a ballot of expansive choices, and potential alliances.  But does Ranked Choice Voting create the best consensus in a city of widely economically varying populace or divided demographics?  This post skeptically interrogates the mapping of the results of RCV, and raises a question of how Ranked Choice intersects with low voter turnout that increasingly plagues the state.  The distribution of the vote suggests that as much as to best preserve a conclusion of consensus across lines of neighborhoods, the possibility that a plurality offers a victor in RCV may encourage pre-existing divides, and indeed echo an earlier geography of urban division in Oakland, although it was adopted to conserve individual voters’ voices by asking candidates to present themselves collectively to the city’s voters.

Yet a clear consequence of its acceptance that was perhaps unforeseen is to encourage candidates to compete for all voters and compete with each other in ways that appear more democratic than a system of top-heavy primary elections.   The institution of RCV has effectively created strategies for seeking a plurality of votes, rather than a majority, by rewarding the possibility of the reallocation of votes, and elimination of candidates not able to assemble a coalition:   if the fielding of ten candidates in 2010 created the opportunity for a competition for second-place votes, the reallocation of “exhausted” ballots allowed a clear majority to be assembled in 2014.  An unforeseen effect may obscure its democratic process, and allow candidates to create coalitions with each other, and give greater electoral weight to sectors of the population who craft apparent consensus through a plurality, or who constituted the most effective voting block.  Some evidence might be found of the limits of creating actual consensus in Tom Dupuis’ elegantly colored and cleverly designed an  interactive map too read voters’ choices across a crowded field of fifteen candidates.  It reveals social divides and the effective symbolic sectorization of votes in a crowded field of fourteen candidates.

As much as the map gives viewers a “nuanced glimpse” of the results, as the Registrar argued, it reveals the distillation of  the steep competition for votes in a real roller coaster of an election which enjoyed multiple front-runners at different times, with polls suggesting narrow gaps and alternate eventual outcomes.  Did competition among fifteen candidates foster a fracturing of the city’s first-choice votes, hamstringing the crafting of consensus in ways reflected in the socio-economic rifts revealed in the Registrar’s map?  Did the division of voters’ preferences that emerged, more to the point, serve the public good?  It might be that these lines not only offer evidence of the city’s continued growing socioeconomic fragmentation, but are encouraged by the procedure of reallocating the votes for candidates who received fewer votes according to the institution of Ranked Choice Voting:  such a model of reallocation of votes encourages us to accept these divisions as a reflection of the division of multiple interests in the city, in ways that almost make us throw up our hands at the idea of arriving at a clear consensus within the sort of crowded field of candidates, and leave us wrestling with how a winner could be anointed to represent Oakland.

The difficulty of involving the city in a process of voting where sectors of the city seem already–given low turnout–disenfranchised seems particularly grave; RCV may well disenfranchise those less literate with ballot choices.  The levels of turnout across the city demand to be mapped more clearly, but the screenshot of the map provided by the Oakland Registrar of first-choice voting already demands analysis in relation to a range of other open data maps for the clear topography in attitudes that it reveals.  Although issues of being tough on crime and promoting public safety dominated the recent 2014 election, it is striking how effective a pro-policing strategy came to be in pulling out the vote for Schaaf–although it was first articulated by Joe Tuman and followed up on by Jean Quan and Bryan Parker–in those neighborhoods bordering the regions of the city where the highest number of homicides were most historically prominent and densely concentrated in prior years:


Oakland 2014 mayoral


In the overlays that distinguished the neighborhoods in this post’s header, color-coding distinguish districts by which candidates received the greatest share of first-place votes:  the fractured mosaic reflects the city’s current economic divisions as if they are tacitly concealed in the legend that accompanies it, in ways that raise pressing questions of the winner’s ability to truly speak for Oakland, when the districts seem divided around the I-880/I-580 corridor.  Despite Schaaf’s clear ability to win many votes outside the hills areas, and around  Lake Merritt, this post suggests that these may show the topography of urban wealth to which her candidacy appealed.


Oakland Votes 2014


This magnified map of voters’ first choices in Oakland’s recent election was effectively shaped into a majority vote for Libby Schaaf after six repeated rounds of re-assigning second- and third-choice votes and eliminating candidates.  Despite the considerable (if unwarranted) fears RCV would delay its final outcome, as it had in previous years, one winner was winnowed from fifteen candidates, as over six rounds, Schaaf acquired a clear plurality of the popular vote and appeared a veritable landslide whose pea-green flood appears to flow from the hills across neighborhoods without ambiguity:  this, it says, is Oakland today.  As viewers habituated to similar infographics that present conclusive images of the status quo as if had transparency, and had no history, it might make sense to consider how RCV encouraged considerable fragmentation of voting in the city, and to note the different perceptions of the city’s needs expressed in the division of the electorate between larger and often less-densely inhabited districts in hills and more compressed districts in urban flats.

Although the below map of first-choice votes in the race conceals the quite considerable courting of different populations and vigorous contestation of the vote’s outcome–Rebecca Kaplan, who made a strong showing in 2010 mayoral race, was for a time favored over Mayor Jean Quan; strong polling was common for other candidates–an intense competition for voters concealed in the final tally.  Of course, in opening the field to so many candidates, the practice of RCV presumed the ability of the voters to distinguish the varied platforms of each candidates–something that was increasingly blurred in the increasing emphasis many paid to crime that won votes of more monied voters, and the upbeat narrative she provided of an Oakland that was doing well–and one whose residents deserved better law-enforcement.

The compelling division between sectors of the city grew in how to confront the question of urban crime, and its high robbery rate–judged by the FBI to be the highest in the country.  For as crime has grown, the police force has shed some 20% of its staff since 2010, the date of the last mayoral race, in ways that have led police to bemoan a failure to respond to high crime rates by adding more patrols.  Although Quan has instituted community patrols, the recent rise of private security firms in Oakland has led to a growing distrust of the status quo or office of the mayor to protect many urban neighborhoods–and created a deep quandary over what sort of expenditures will best serve the city’s residents.


5.  A narrative of failure of local leadership has elided the decline in crime that occurred during Jean Quan’s tenure, and the benefits brought from the rise of the effectiveness of the neighborhood community policing in Oakland that Quan had long championed–and the aligning of districts to encourage community policing.  While both changes contributed to a significant drop in homicides and robberies, as well as residential burglaries across some fifty-three Neighborhood Councils within police beats already, the increased density of Neighborhood Policing Beats and focussed nature of Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils in Districts 3 and 5, in East Oakland did not address all residents.  Indeed, the areas that felt they needed more policing prioritized a narrative on public safety–and where the narrative of cementing the Oakland Police Department with neighborhood committees actually appeared to have been less effective.




The notion of a need for containing “crime”–and the linkage between “public safety” questions defined by widespread criminality–“economic” and “property crimes” rather than homicide–and seen as a basis for economic growth”–forged a specific argument that is directed to a demographic which could be expected to be reliably turnout in the election.  Despite the difficulty of one candidate attracting a clear overall majority, the data visualization barely conceals the divides across the city, and conceals the huge divides in voter turnout across districts in 2010 helps reveal deep fault-lines between individual districts.  Such a divided voting populace clearly favors the candidates who raise issues that resonate with the divided darkly-colored demographic of the city–and don’t even need to compete for over half the city–or two-thirds the physical plant–from West Oakland, East Oakland, or the area near the Port, whose turnout was already known to be less than half in 2010.  With turnout declining city-wide by 2014, does the Registrar’s map reveal a coalition of propertied voters who have come to speak for Oakland as a whole in an increasingly fragmented city, where the interests of mayoral candidates address “property crimes” that almost seem code for urban fears, removed from the models of community policing Quan helped introduce.



Oakland Voter TurnoutCourtesy Ofurhe Igbinedion


Such significant if predictable disparities most probably grew by 2014, and were known to all candidates.

Despite the validity with which the above map illustrates the predominance Schaaf’s choice in first-place across much of the city, it also reveals clear divides.  In an era when the infographic seems a sort of speech act, having an enunciatory value bordering more on the declarative, than inviting analysis, the map demands to be unpacked for what it tells us about Oakland, however, rather than the degree it depicts a consensus that invests a mantle of authority on Schaaf as mayor.  For the map begs questions of what sort of consensus was created around the Oakland mayor–and with what authority was Schaaf effectively anointed representative of the entire city is a crucial question worthy of consideration, especially in relation to the practice of Ranked Choice Voting.


6.  In a city as ethnically and economically divided as is historically the case in Oakland, the dynamics of Ranked Choice Voting create complicated questions of political representation and the best means of investing local residents in elections, of far more interest than mechanics of tabulating votes which have received so much attention in Oakland’s most recent mayoral elections.  Such questions might be best considered in the analysis of what sort of coalition was created in Oakland’s Ranked Choice Voting system.  Does the map that shows the pea-green flood of first-choice votes for Mayor-Elect flowing down from the hills to meet a mosaic of districts show a city divided or reveal consensus for the entire city, or in fact echo the deep historical divisions within the city?  It threatens to resuscitate some of the city’s darker specters and deepest divides, as the segregation long supported and effectively encoded by the “racist housing policy” of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, long accepted across America as a tacit form of racially-based housing discrimination in housing that classified neighborhoods as worth real estate investment or not.

Although the pea-green hue that designates the block of districts who selected Schaaf as their first choice resonates with the leafy green of the many trees that still line Oakland’s streets, how closely does the map map onto the the socioeconomic boundaries of a newly divided city?  In a city that is still scarred by the mortgage market dictated in the still-notorious HOLC real estate maps which date from the Depression, but shaped American cities like Oakland until the 1960s, the valleys of economic growth that long characterized Oakland continued to inform the way that echoed how the electorate divided across the city’s property lines–if only in how they note the “best” areas for investment in light green, a hue that is quite eerily analogous to the Registrar’s coloring of the districts who listed Schaaf as their first choice for mayor:


HOLC Oak-Berk


The clear family resemblance of the color-scheme of this “Residential Security Map” transmitted from the days of the HOLC’s authoritative voice suggests that RCV may not create the most open new space to define an open political space in Oakland’s future–and indeed the recuperation of a somewhat analogous five-color scheme of coloration in the Registrar’s map, albeit with the expansion of the hills area of “First Grade” residences,  seems to augur a new civic divide.  This return of the long-repressed seems hardly a coincidence, but indeed suggests the scary persistence of a policy of segregation underlying current Oakland politics, from which debates over the need for political “leadership” distract.  The constraints that such HOLC ranking of regions introduced in the local housing market provide a scary point of entrance into the distribution of different mayoral candidates across city neighborhoods:  for their distribution reveals the deep division between “left” and “moderate” in Oakland’s election, already familiar from the 2010 race between the moderate pro-police Don Perata in the hills, and his distancing from the more left-wing candidates who won other areas of the city.  Oakland’s real estate market is, to be sure, not similarly divided today, but the curious comparison of these visualizations of the divisions of the city’s populations provide something of a starting point to analyze the divisions of corridors and regions within how Oakland broke for different mayoral candidates in 2014.  Jean Quan quite awkwardly strove throughout her term to distance herself from her community-organizer origins, and embrace more moderate creds, but her failure to unite the left in ways led to the fracturing of a large body of votes between herself, Rebecca Kaplan, CIty Auditor Courtney Ruby, and ex-Quan appointees labor lawyer Dan Seigel and former Port Commissioner Brian Parker.  The odd resurgence of the sectorization of Oakland by antiquated real estate “codes” exposes the underside of its economic growth.

The practice of federally mandated redlining created strong obstacles across neighborhoods to being serviced by insurers or equity loans that prevented many of the same urban areas from developing, effectively skewing the mortgage market against neighborhoods in ways that were engraved into the city’s physical plant.  The divisions that the color-coded map of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation pictured above caused a deep disinvestment in areas judged to be “hazardous”–“D,” shaded in red–or “declining”–“C,” shaded in yellow– obstructed loans or insurance to poorer areas that effectively discriminated on racial lines, and prompting a suburban outmigration at the expense of Oakland’s poorer urban areas.  While these sectors were not exactly the same as the economic fault-lines that structured the 2014 mayoral vote, but they clearly chromatically echoed its essential contours, and in an almost eery manner resonate with the demographic alliances that determined the election’s results.   One wouldn’t want to suggest reading the distribution of first-place choices for mayor in the 2014 election against a redlining map of the 1930s, but that map set a basis for home-ownership and settlement of the city which left a strong imprint on its socioeconomic fracturing, even before freeways were built through its heart.

That boundary lines of that big green doughnut of first-place votes that is situated in the hills in the screenshot of the map of the Registrar of Voters, and balanced around Piemont,  gives special insight to a city demanding to be explored by open data available on the city’s population . . .


Green Doughnut in Oakland



7.  This post seeks to examine the distribution of votes in specific neighborhoods.  For while the sectors of redlining were not exactly the same as the economic fault-lines that structured the 2014 mayoral vote, the divide among current Oakland voters clearly chromatically echoed the Home Owners’ Lending Corporation’s essential contours, and almost resonate with the demographic alliances that determined the election’s results.  This post suggests the benefits of an exercise in “distant reading” to unpack divides among first-place votes for Oakland’s mayor, less in terms of the following the contours of proportional voting than to distinguish the varied interests that might have motivated–or be accentuated by–the expansion of an electoral field to multiple candidates.  The comparison of the map of the Registrar might read against a range of maps of the city’s demographic divisions to better  a contextualize the visualization of first-place  choices in relation to the issues that drove the recent election, and the different degrees of involvement of such a radically diminished electorate.

To start to unpack this division of electoral preferences, some substantial GIS-spadework might allow one to read the vote against the city’s shifting demographic.  For the electoral splintering can be read in relation to the shifting terrain of property valuation that has recently transformed the East Bay.   A recent map–of somewhat questionable accuracy, which RadPad engagingly imagined by mapping costs of renting one-bedroom apartments after a BART map to suggest that migration from San Francisco rentals (where $1 million now gets a home-buyers just over 1500 square feet) drove up demand for East Bay rentals in ways that pushed monthly costs of one-bedroom units beyond what many residents could afford.  It’s unclear what sort of data the map uses, but its hope is to take the very icon of interconnectivity across the Bay Area that BART creates to reveal the intensifying the relative sectorization of an already economically fractured city.  The new market for living East Bay, shown as surprisingly more expensive than one might have imagined, prominently placed significantly high rents around Oakland’s “downtown”–19th and 12th Street–as well as in Lake Merritt and Fruitvale.




The emergence of strikingly similar divides across the city that the BART system links is foregrounded in  a map showing the steep gaps between life expectancy in areas on the same public transit lines–from a slightly earlier period–so clearly linked to the huger divides in average income at different stops in the East Bay, and the huge increase in rates of asthma in Oakland’s City Center and Fruitvale, in contrast to the outlying areas outside of the urban pollution, and the far lower educational levels of what “Oakland” consists.


BART Health Map:Life Expectancy at BART stops


Such a demographic spread suggests the steep challenges of creating a representational unity across the city, although it only starts to reveal the fracture lines of economic wealth and urban affluence that have emerged within the economic growth of Oakland in recent years, but were reflected within the shifting constituencies that existed for different mayoral candidates in 2014.

While not offering the best screen or field conducive to electoral analysis of the vote distribution, given its lack of continuity or coverage, the pointed map that pushed rents for a one-bedroom that of $1,100 or $1,200 to the far corners of Hayward or Richmond, our outside Oakland itself.  While not necessarily accurate, and omitting parts of the city, the map suggests a relatively rapid redefining of the profile of the East Bay.  For a huge range of Oakland where the BART offers an increasingly crowded morning commute, renting one-bedroom has increased to over $2,000/month, only declining below $1,400/month outside of the Oakland that exists on major traffic arteries, with quite a considerable depression along the same transit line that stops at the Coliseum, Bay Fair, or Hayward, and a notable peak in downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt–and few one-bedrooms in Rockridge are available for as low as $1,775/month, or the availability of rentals Fruitvale at the same rate as Lake Merritt.




Yet indeed the BART map in any of its iterations offers little basis to map or represent “Oakland,” both because of its clearly non-representational nature, and in the clear original intent to bridge the Bay Area, and amalgamate its space, irrespective of water and land divides–a point that was most strongly made in its original version of 1972, or in the more expansive map that blurs Oakland into a web of regional transit.







8.  For a snapshot of the city’s economic divides–divides extending to the completion of High School or life-expectancy, one can more easily map a microcosm of the “wealth-gap”  Thomas Picketty has described.  A similar map of variations in home-prices reveals the steep challenge of creating consensus across the same city in even greater detail and relief.  More accurate and more illuminating is the most recent landscape of the listing house prices Trulia generated for Oakland as a heat map in Google Maps, which reveals far deeper rifts between desirable neighborhoods and valleys of undesirability that makes the divided terrain all the more legible than the cute distribution of rentals along BART commute rail.  It offers a more effective vehicle to understand the topography of voting, and indeed contrasts with the image of high-priced rentals in Oakland, by illustrating the deep drops in realty prices across a large swath of the city:


Truliaized landscape, listing price


As does a heat map of houses’ valuation raises similar questions of common grounds, and of the geographic limits of Oakland’s economic revival, which provides a worthy preface to re-examine the stark differences that regions of Oakland selected their first-choice in mayoral candidates:


Trulia-ized landscape, house valuation


The electoral map of mayoral choice must be viewed through the lens of these landscapes, and of framing consensus across a shifting economic terrain, where propertied interests are increasingly primarily opposed to and fearful of a growth in property crime.   By excavating the electoral map through a public data, the results of the election might be better analyzed in relation to the changing composition of Oakland’s neighborhoods–even independently from the multiple reasons for the strikingly low turnout in the city–with only some 55.7% of eligible voters registered in October 2014 and voting some 14% lower than 2010.  Of the 47.4% voting turnout the election inspired, in a system of Ranked Choice Voting, where votes for some candidates are eliminated, fewer than 35% of actual voters decided the election’s results.  The map in the header suggests where they lived.

Rather than accept the short-term record of the divisions of electoral preferences, this post tries to mine the Registrar’s data visualization and create a set of maps that offer a deeper context for the election as a whole than the layering of electoral choice show.  The point is not to naturalize the divides in Oakland, indeed, but to see how they can be worked with and overcome.  And the goal is not to unpack economic bases on which vote divided, or suggest the increasing economical inequalities across the city, but entertain questions of how Ranked Voting, in a strikingly low turnout, helped candidates manufacture consensus around what almost seem non-issues, by increasing the increasing strident and oppositional development of  political debate during this year’s mayoral election and by encouraging competition for votes speaking for only a part of the city, in ways that might deepen effective disenfranchisement across the city.


9.  The practice of ranking candidates sought to keep consensus among voters–in a city which long lacked a serious Republican candidate, the idea of choosing three alternatives appealed.  But in manufacturing consensus by an effective collapsing of the urban electorate, RCV created a narrowing of political debate, by minimizing the impact of those who don’t decide to select a full panel of three candidates or erroneously select the same candidate for three posts or listing only one choice in the erroneous belief they would benefit the candidate, although the reverse is the case.

Far more crucially, the victor of Ranked Choice Voting raises questions of the legitimacy with which the entire city feels their presence reflected in the mayoralty in a race that was as narrowly contested as that between Schaaf, Kaplan, Quan, Siegel, Tuman and Parker–who indeed often had trouble distinguishing their own voices for voters.  The conferral of victory by reapportioning votes belies the fact that they are often only supported by a plurality in a crowded field such–as that of the choice of fifteen candidates for mayor in Oakland CA, where the newly adopted system of RCV also makes it virtually impossible to win a majority mandate–or to organize their campaign in ways that curry specific constituencies.  In an age of increasingly low turnout, moreover, the costs of RCV in creating an imagined consensus among many candidates may outweigh the benefits of giving a voice to all:  for unless more voting can be encouraged across the city, is the ranking of individual choices really a means of enfranchising the city as a whole?  Although the opponents of RCV often point out that its main danger is to dilute the effects of a party’s endorsement, the intervention of the California Governor and one Senator tilted the balance in Oakland voting, even late in arrival, to Schaaf.

Unforeseen costs of RCV may lie in the low turnout that it can unintentionally provoke, as candidates curry actively voting sectors of the population, instead of confronting the issues that confront the city as a whole. If the election was celebrated as lacking without ambiguity, based on the “genuine connection” with Oaklanders, the rapid tabulation of votes reveals that her victory of the popular vote, although both evident and created without ties to unions that have so heavily influenced local Oakland politics in the past, despite the great success she had in transcending easy type-casting as “from the hills,” and, not contented to rest on her base of support, reach out–leaving her as the favored second- and third- choice alternative for many, mostly who were well-off but tired of a perceived lack of leadership.  Schaaf’s deep victory was in many ways a victory for the status quo that benefitted in her ability to move “beyond the hills” as a result of RCV.

The fractured terrain in the mapped electoral results of what candidates districts selected as their first choice raise questions about the possibility of asserting the symbolic authority of majority–and demanded six rounds to be decisively resolved.  Despite aiming to increase all votes’ significance, there are some indications RCV did not encourage learning about choices, but may have helped instituted an uneven distribution of how voters selected three choices–and an attempt to appeal to specific and indeed increasingly distinct demographic constituencies, and out of desire to form a plurality of votes.  Whether or not all voters indeed complete three choices, there is the danger that some votes counted more than others as rounds of the tally eliminated candidates, and that the list encouraged a fragmenting into camps of consensus–and that the victor is invested with a symbolic legitimacy that does not in fact reflect the true magnitude of their support–and create the inevitability of a non-majority victor, whose legitimacy is in a sense, as it was recognized since the system devised in 1871 by an architect in Massachusetts, William Robert Ware, and it was adopted in Australia since 1918:  the system has only been adopted in local elections, there is support to use it to “break the two-party [system’s apparent] deadlock” on voter-choice in America, and respond to an increasingly partisan polarization of politics in Washington.  How its results might be mapped–and what sort of coalitions or political practices it might encourage–demand attention and consideration.

The uneven adoption of selecting three ranked choices by “instant runoff voting” may, for one, privilege the voice of certain voters who select three choices in a crowded field.  in the eventuality that not all exercise the option to select three choices, as requested in the ballot, RCV “counts” votes in potentially disproportionate ways.  And in the case of close competition between multiple candidates–as the fifteen candidates who announced in the recent race, of which at least up to five were considered polled credibly–the collapsing of the electorate around a set of candidates could manufacture an effective landslide majority victory of the sort that instant runoff voting is able to stage.  There was shock, to be sure, at the election of Jean Quan in a startling upset victory over favored insider Don Perata, when his apparent lead of almost 10% among first choice votes evaporated after the tabulation of second- and third-choice votes in later days directed the vote to candidate Quan–in ways that may have brought an ebb in its adoption after some seventeen Californian municipalities embraced it after 2000.  But the sort of manufactured victory by which Libby Schaaf arrived at a “landslide” victory of  63% created a sense of consensus as other candidates dropped out of the pool in successive rounds, and their votes were redirected to second choices.  Schaaf attracted as many first-choice votes as her closest competitors, Quan and Rebecca Kaplan, combined.  The mapping the distribution of votes Schaaf gained reveal what Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tom Dupuis rightly called a “treasure trove for anyone interested in examining the nuances of the election outcome or Oakland’s current political landscape.”  Yet rather than reveal a stable landscape, the overlays of dominant voting preferences suggest a surface whose content needs to be excavated to reveal its deep divisions.

For rather than picturing a coherent landscape, the conceit of transparency Dupuis adopted belies how the distribution of votes mirrors the city’s fractured social divides, and the economic fault-lines and lack of a single political vision.  If the notion of a landscape itself expands the metaphorical definition of the map, the conceit of how votes map Oakland’s political landscape acknowledges that districts’ different first-choice candidates mirrors the city’s clear socioeconomic topography.  Laying electoral returns over neighborhoods masks the persistent uneven levels of income, educational completion, or ethnic composition in the city, but translates its inhabitants to a register of political allegiance among the fifteen candidates in ways that suggest the distinct demographics each courted–and the fault-lines that the results of the election were intended to mask.  The social landscape of the last election is striking–Schaaf clearly captured the well-off hills, whose properties have considerably higher values, and the other candidates crisply divided the social mosaic across Oakland’s other neighborhoods.  Although RCV was not statistically central in shifting the proportional division of first-choice votes in this election, the expansion of the field of candidates RCV both encouraged and enabled each candidate to identify with a demographic or interested community that echoed and opened the fault-lines of interestedness across the city.

The quite fractured “landscape” revealed in the electoral map of Ranked Choice Coting conceals the underlying narratives that shaped the election–and the alliances and allegiances that developed during the campaign around the fears of public safety, as much as issues of Oakland’s economy, jobs, or public sector.  Such narratives were not about RCV, but seem unleashed by ranked voting:  the color-coded Registrar’s map  reveal salient splits of allegiances near the port of Oakland that do map onto the city’s social landscape: the more irregular boundaries of districts for Schaaf, hued pea-green, contrast to the rectilinear bounds of the city blocks in East Oakland, reflecting property values which voting works to resolve.  The resolution of a majority in RCV is difficult because of the ability it opens for candidates to address a distinct demographic, and reap benefits from a self-selected regional consensus, and not the consensus of the city at large, so that the candidates’ policies oddly refracted the city’s needs.  Indeed areas of the city more removed from BART lines that promise to cut commute times to San Francisco, the results of the voting remained in stark contrast to the plurality who voted for School.  (They were also no doubt plagued by lower turnout.)



E OakEast Oakland electoral districts, color-coded to reveal first-choice votes


One of the hidden narrative that the visualization of first-votes in Oakland’s districts effectively masks is the question of prioritizing public safety by expanding policing that a distinct demographic demands.

Considering the massive media blitz on the sometime scandal of the triumphal victory of outgoing mayor Jean Quan–defying electoral predictions and received wisdom, considerably less attention has been paid to how RCV affected the recent election of Libby Schaaf.  Attempts to map the distribution of Schaaf’s recent victory over a crowded field may reveals the complexity of its claims for equal political representation, and the effectiveness of a narrative of increased policing–and mayor Quan’s relations with the police–that became so central in mayoral debates.  Schaaf’s selection raises questions of how ranked voting translates into a system of political representation and the political liabilities of ranked ballots as a political institution.  In ways that suggest a sophisticated marketing to a select demographic, Schaaf’s team successfully cultivated an interesting demographic constellation of hipster and suburban voters based on a Brown-like campaign that particularly appealed to this group for updating the image of Oakland as city–as much as addressing its social problems.  Even as newspaper articles poked some fun at the institution in blaring “not even ranked voting could save [mayor] Jean Quan this time round” against Schaaf and several old competitors from 2010 who competed for left or moderate votes, Schaaf’s victory revealed a surprisingly distinct geographical grouping of votes.  Schaaf attained a majority of votes after redistributing the votes of supporters of “lower-ranked candidates” receiving a smaller share of first-place votes–and rapid tallying an impressive 63% of the vote and the immediate impression of a groundswell of support for a candidate who was in fact only the first choice of less than a third of voters.


10.  The map of voters who split for Schaaf in their first ballots is moreover troubling in suggesting how strongly her support was based in the more economically well-off areas where she gained a clear majority of votes that weren’t splintered in effective suburbs of the city–rather than the poorer “downtown” areas and the flats, and the increasingly vibrant areas of Grand Lake, North Oakland, and Lake Merritt, as well as the suburban Trestle Glen, Glen View and Montclair:  the coalition is a non-majority grouping which built a huge amount of momentum in the election’s final two months.  It’s creation is striking not because of how it mirrors a wealth divide–though it largely does–but because of how clearly it seems to have grown in reaction to perceived needs to contain personal and especially property crimes, and reject apparent insufficiencies of the current mayor’s crime policies–as much as a vision of governance.

Even as the electoral map showing Schaaf’s victory is abstracted form the city’s complex social topography, the windy lines of the electoral districts Schaaf carried as primary choice indicates their far greater property value.  But the point of this post is to suggest that the issues that came to the fore in this campaign–issues of containing crime and increasing policing, rather than less attractive ones of urban blight or a crisis in public education, youth truancy, and social welfare–drew together an increasingly economically prosperous electorate who felt threatened by the criminality in the city, and on the edges of the demographic of the flats.


Oakland 2014 mayoral



11.  The choice of color by which to color districts with a majority of first-place votes for Schaaf clearly echoes the green of the City of Oakland’s new inclusive oak-tree emblem, if not the leafy region of the hills–but will it invest Schaaf with authority as the selection of the entire city?





While Ranked Choice Voting gave broader participation to voters and allowed a range of candidate would would not “draw votes” from each other, there was some anger at the 2010 victory of Jean Quan.  The recent expansion of candidates complicated questions of arriving at an accurate outcome, or a conclusion able to accommodate the diverse interests of communities across the city.  For one, the result depends on understanding and selection of alternate choices:  for at crowded field that divides without a clear majority winner gives strikingly significant roles to second and third choices to create a final tally of votes that elected a mayor, and assumes that all voters are included in the subsequent rounds of dividing the vote.

Candidate Schaaf benefited from associating herself with the image of a young, hip Oakland, whose economic development is clear in a range of high-end restaurants, boutiques, galleries and hip locales.  But actual  enfranchisement was something at odds with the expanding role that policing played in the competing visions of the mayoral candidates, and the clear appeal that policing seemed to gain for voters.  On the tail of the late-arriving but dramatically delayed joint endorsements from Governor Brown and Senator Barbara Boxer, sporting semiotically-charged and sophisticatedly hip wooden oak-tree earrings–that recuperated the stylized swirls of the curling branches of an oak tree adopted as an urban icon during Brown’s tenure, intended to improve the city’s image, and emblazoned on its street signs at considerable cost, to match Brown’s vision for renewing the city’s downtown: Schaaf promised an analogous message of growth with environmentalism, even if she fell short on policy plans.



Libby Schaaf/KQED


The wooden oak-tree earrings inconspicuously flaunting the icon, first introduced by Jerry Brown to update the city’s flag and suggest its vibrancy and inclusiveness, the tree became adopted as an emblem of the campaign.  It almost presented a manicured vision of transcending the problems that faced Oakland and seems tailored to a precise demographic, even if its branches suggest an embrace of the city’s diversity.  Schaaf’s candidacy, long rooted in the hills, compel one to map the coalition she assembled in the context of RCV; the layers of electoral voting the Registrar provided might be better read less by contextualizing the voting block she assembled–and the narrative of public safety that animated the last months of the campaign–in the range of open data maps to explore the actual diversity and divides in Oakland’s neighborhoods’ relation to property crime.  But the mechanics of ‘Ranked Choice’ must be reviewed in relation to the recent mayoral contest to examine the narratives of political representation that unfolded in the election and framed the electoral divisions of the city, rather than letting the electoral map speak alone.


12.  Yet the openings RCV allows in Oakland’s political debates and future should be the central topic of this post.  The mapping of what districts preferred individual candidates in the recent mayoral election this November also suggests the prominence of clear coalitions created by such “instant run-off” voting to allow non-majority candidates to assemble a majority.  The map can only be read with a review of how the practice of such “instant run-off” voting expanded the field of candidates so widely to dilute their effectiveness in assembling a consensus choice.

While the goal of Ranked Choice Voting was to increase each voter’s enfranchisement–especially in a situation where first choices may be filled without a second choice being made–the result is often to capitalize on the system:  much as Kaplan and Quan had asked their supporters to use the ballot by listing each other as second choices, a dominant power structure to be able, in such a crowded field, to assemble sufficient votes in surprising ways, moderate candidates like Courtney Ruby, Bryan Parker, and Joe Tuman invited their supporters to rank one another, at the last minute, in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off Schaaf’s rise in the pools–she received more votes than they did combined.  If the secondary choices can determine the election, however, RCV also presumes both that all voters will select three choices for mayor; if all do not make three choices, but leave the remainder of their ballot empty, their voices will count less than those enumerating three choices.  For if Ranked Choice Voting was designed to eliminate the need for run-offs and their cost, Ranked Choice Voting has provided a mode of amassing consensus, it gave far greater say to those who complete their full three choices:  as candidates with low percentages of votes were eliminated in successive rounds, and their constituents’ second and third choices are tabulated and reallocated, instant-runoff voting allowed Schaaf, whose plurality as first choice (29.43%) to gained the necessary majority (63%) as the field of fifteen candidates narrowed, and second- and third- choice votes entered her column.

This November’s mayoral race provided less of a surprise victor in a deeply contested field in previous years: RCV was not nearly as critical in this year’s mayoral race.  But ranked choice voting provided a curious way of refracting how a plurality of the city’s population mirrored the city’s social divides.  If voting is increasingly tied to different expectations of what Oakland’s communities could most hope from a mayor, in the low-turnout election statewide–46% statewide–attracting more anti-Quan votes than strong backers of candidates, anti-status quo candidates may have attracted voters to the polls in ways that propelled the late-rising candidacy of Libby Schaaf, a special assistant to Jerry Brown when he served as Oakland’s mayor.  Belied by the apparent dominance Schaaf held across the hills, the election was in fact a roller coaster of a vote for several months:  many early polls had favored City Council at-large member Rebecca Kaplan by over 50%, with a majority ready to not re-elect Mayor Jean Quan, but for the past two years, significantly over 50% of polled Oaklanders have named “crime” as the major issue the city faces–63% this year, down from 70% last year–with fewer folks citing the economy or education, though these factors seem closely linked.

As may become too common in future urban elections, fear of inadequately addressing public safety emerged as a showcased compelling issue in the recent election, increasingly overshadowing other issues from unemployment to eduction, and propelled by Quan’s cycling through four police chiefs and city administrators in four years, and the parallel grassroots growth of ‘Neighborhood Watch ‘ campaigns.  As Trestle Glen resident Tuman showcase effective “crime-fighting” in a “five-point plan” for reducing crime and the causes of crime in Oakland, from placing more police on the streets, improving response times and developing crime-prevention strategies, Schaaf picked it up and ran with it by asking voters to “reject that crime is a tax you have to pay to live in Oakland,” in April.  With crime, community-police relations, and hiring and training more police, Quan’s forced lay-offs of officers issues of that odd neologism public safety led candidates to promise rises in the police force–if Oakland’s police include some 665 officers, candidates have promised to increase the current 707 officers currently funded to 800 (Parker), 836 (Kaplan), or 900 (Tuman).  Even before the recent decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed the unarmed Michael Brown August 9, increasing Oakland’s police force would have been unpopular to those marching in solidarity with Ferguson in Oakland–as elsewhere in the nation–to demand an end to the increased militarization of local police whose targeting of specific groups was felt to endanger safe neighborhoods.

No one, surprisingly, asked if more police is actually what Oakland needs–and few pointed to the fact that the reduction  of the police force by Mayor Quan actually mirrored a reduction of crime in the city, rather than creating conditions for its increase in a city that long resisted police presence.  One might have had good reason to question whether the increase of policing equates to a growth in public safety.  And in the face of recent conflicts with police from Ferguson to Staten Island, and from the protests at the police’s killing of Michael Brown (hands raised) to protests at the killing Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe“), the increase of police presence is by no means popular thing citywide.  The historic downturn in crime in the first years of Quan’s tenure was however obscured as candidates piled on the mayor in blaming her for an inconsistent relation with building a trained body of police in Oakland since an April debate–and leading both Quan and Joe Tuman to enlist the none other than the once-not-popular former LAPD Chief and current NYPD Commissioner and national strongman William Bratton to burnish their images.  Framing the election around policing re-dimensions the mayoral race by focussing the electorate on issues that appealed in selective to specific demographics, and perhaps relegated other, more immediately pressing issues–education; unemployment; the local economy–to the back burner, bestowing public prominence to policing in ways that cannot but alienate another demographic, and make them less likely to vote.

Candidates’ increasing appeal to the containing of crime spoke primarily to more affluent propertied Oaklanders, and may have alienated much of the electorate, as much as educating them to the city’s broader needs.  One might indeed ask if a future scenario of police violence is only waiting to arrive in Oakland’s streets.  In a city which spends some 40 percent of the general funds budget on police, the notion of expanding the police force means and policing equates to augmenting the already large share of funds on policing, raising questions of the future budget of the city that only recently emerged from the threat of receivership.  The complex narrative of a reduction of policing at the same time as a rise, albeit followed by a recent reduction, in urban crime, and fears joint specters of receivership and compliance since the Occupy movement have detracted attention from a mandate on public safety.  But even in the recent police responses to post-Ferguson protests, the sort of response that increased policing and confrontation with police would generate–tear gassing; containment by batons, rubber bullets or tasters and other practiced tactics of policing; almost inevitable racial profiling–whether a growth of policing is what Oakland needs to spend money on deserves to be debated.  Before looking at some maps of crime in the city, let’s begin from the electoral map of first-ranked votes to suggest how the narrative of preserving public safety and containing crime appealed to specific demographics in Oakland, and how specific sources of fundraising supported this narrative of the need to restore public order and contain crime.  Does the presence of more police, in short, which presage a force equipped with military arms that suggest far greater expansion of possibilities of confrontation with protestors or civil unrest actually bode well for the city?


10850109_418141448339423_604459649808786156_nEmily Robinson


13.  At the same time as each candidate drew on different levels of discontent with the status quo, candidate Schaaf most closely identified herself with the project of continuing Oakland’s recent economic growth–and gained significant support from monied interests in a field of fifteen.  The image of growing Oakland distinguishing herself within the five front-runners, including outgoing Mayor Quan, at-large City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, Port Commissioner Bryan Parker, or labor lawyer Dan Siegel–rather than a focus on crime.  But although Schaaf’s victory cannot be attributed to Ranked Choice Voting in ways that brought the current mayor to office, she emerged as victor from a contest in a crowded field of those who sought to claim the left of folks more moderate than Mayor Quan, her tacit championing of a law-and-order narrative.

The consolidation of consensus indeed emerged with relatively rapidity over a short period of time around the mayor-elect, distinguishing the moderate Schaaf not only from a wide field but two former front-runners, Rebecca Kaplan and Jean Quan.  Schaaf emerged to defeat a crowded field, including the city’s current mayor, although the first choice of less than 30% of the popular vote–by the final count, however, she had pulled ahead by over 60% in the policy of Ranked Choice Voting described above.  And in a policy where voters who were more likely to chose a full range of candidates–there doesn’t seem data to see how many folks didn’t select the full list, or how many ballots were disqualified by selecting the same choice three times–this created something of an artificial mandate to be the mayor of the whole city, even if her support was clearly concentrated in demographically somewhat specific areas.  And in a year when turnout was so low to barely approach 40%, it is hard to say that her candidacy ever reached the broadly based support that her ostensible majority victory portends.

The electorate was moreover informed by what issues attracted folks to the polls in a low turnout year.  The paradox of how Ranked Choice relies on attracting more voters to the polls–and works best when voters take advantage of the ability to make all votes count–a very uneven turnout gives somewhat disproportionate voice to selective constituencies as well as to support second- or third-choices.  And here is where the effects of Ranked Choice Voting may have been somewhat different from intended, and somewhat skewed the vote in the favor of those who would be more likely to select a full range of three choices, and to respond to a candidate who claimed to be able to reduce urban crime in ways that appealed to more suburban areas of the city.

Although ranked voting is intended to increase the and prevent competing candidates from extinguishing each other’s candidacy, and it has fulfilled both ends to a great extent:  Schaaf clearly won the coalition of the Hills outside Piedmont, Crocker Highlands, and North Oakland, with most all of the Lake Merritt area.  But she will soon find herself enmeshed in negotiations with the big unions in the city (including SEIU and police), the city’s notoriously fragile infrastructure of old roads, bridges, and highways, and school system, which may break the back of her trumpeted fiscal conservatism.  Did the coalition that backed her so strongly–and allowed her to raise more money than any other candidate–create a powerful enough Montclair–Hills-North Oakland-Adams Pt.-Glenview alliance to address the city’s urban problems?  In the face of low turnout throughout the city, the plurality that Schaaf assembled suggests a model for envisioning alliances outside of a political party.

It’s not the best omen that the city split in her election–with many greater-income, whiter neighborhoods going for Schaaf, who represents the wealthiest region of Oakland–but even a worse one that the divides represent a social split that is all too evident in Oakland’s communities.  And while the map that reveals Schaaf’s strong victory suggests a continuity of green supporters that ran down from the Oakland hills, whose squiggly roads almost correspond to greater property values, the distrust that went for Schaaf tended to peter out when they encounter the straight-lined districts of the lower-income formerly working class urban areas, or so-called “flats,” where the demographic is distinctly different.

The far whiter and economically better-off neighborhoods that cluster around Piedmont and East of Lake Merritt, neighborhoods of relatively lower crime and less density, as well as lesser diversity, went collectively for who seemed the most familiar candidate, endorsed by Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer.  This is the same region, one might note, where  CommunityCam allows us to chart one of the most sensitive indices for fear in an urban setting:  how closely residents of the city monitor its public spaces or finds it necessary to survey itself:   the 272 known surveillance cameras that are placed specifically in downtown Oakland and some 810 cameras city-wide reveal a map of monitory insecurity that is indeed amazingly dense for a relatively small area, where video monitoring is particularly diffuse.  The placement of such video cameras in the neighborhoods form Lake Merritt to the estuary and Jack London Square, a downtown nestled by I-980 and I-880, registers a notably dense topography of suspicion and fear that gave great appeal to the promises of increased policing both Schaaf and Tuman offered, and provides interesting insight into the underside of Oakland’s plans to develop downtown area as a commercial center.



The benefit Schaaf drew from voters of other moderate candidates in growing the plurality of less than a third of voters who chose her as their first choice–29.35–to put her over the top arrived with in ways that gave an unsurprisingly rather homogeneous demographic.  While amassing just under a third of the votes in a field of 15 is a considerable achievement, each of the five candidates among whom the field long seemed contested and surprisingly up for grabs in recent polls before Schaaf received the endorsement of former Oakland mayor and Oakland resident Jerry Brown’s early October.


14.  This post began form examining the interactive datamap released by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters of which the distribution of first-place votes for candidates.  Although it has been presented as revealing “complexity” in the election’s final victory, rather than there reflecting the “landslide” suggested by final tabulations, it shows the city split in perhaps predictable ways around who could best serve the public interest.  Strikingly, districts that backed Schaaf for first choice are curiously contiguous and of higher property values; districts dominated by Quan’s supporters were contiguous with those won by Schaaf’s fellow council member Rebecca Kaplan, and raise-the-minimum-wage advocate Dan Siegel won districts that also gave large numbers of votes to Kaplan.  Kaplan, Quan, Parker, and Siegel offered distinctly viable alternatives to Schaaf in the flats, it appears; Quan and Kaplan combined received more first place votes than Schaaf, and the voter turnout was often extremely low.

The narrow margins of victory in areas outside District 1 and District 4 also made those districts decisive, and suggests her victory needs to be seen as far less decisive.  (During the 2012 mayoral election, riding on the get-out-the-vote drive of the Presidential election, Oakland voters turned out at 76.4%, and the high turn-out helped tap an electorate that put Quan over the top over the polls’ favorite, Don Perata–in ways that gave RCV a bad name, and led no jurisdictions to adopt it after Quan’s victory.)  Yet the visual jiujitsu of the infographic created an impression a majority of electoral districts selected her as first choice, even among a wide field of candidates, privileging the pea-green expanse in the less densely populated hills.


Oakland 2014 mayoralRegistrar of Voters/Alameda County


A close-up reveals Schaff’s “sea of pea green” stopping around the hills and City of Piedmont and those districts distinguished by equilateral bounds:


Hills for Schaff


Is the economic transformation of the city the grounds on which Oakland has elected a white mayor?  The area of the Oakland “hills” were those where Schaaf clearly won by her greatest margin, extending from North Oakland to San Leandro, where curving roads indicate elevations–including the wealthy Montclair–while her competitors were far closer in those areas associated with the “flats,” where Kaplan and Quan were closely behind in the tally–or in fact won the district.  With far less than a third of the total votes so far–29.43%, a number not yet able to be officially verified–the segment of the city that she represented was quite socio-economically distinct, in ways that a simple map of winners of districts cannot depict, for all the interest.  With four candidates receiving over 10,000 votes for first place in the second mayoral election organized by “Ranked Choice Voting,” in which voters select three ranked candidates, consensus is difficult to define as it often broke along electoral districts.

But the existence of clear corridor in the above map selecting Quan, Kaplan or Siegel as first-choice votes suggests an absence of strong connections to Schaaf in poorer areas of the city near the I-580/I-880 corridor.


Quan:Kaplan:Seigel Corridor


Is the failure of Schaaf to appeal to this swath of the city a bad omen for facing its unique problems, or sense of being left behind Oakland’s temporary economic recovery?

Further examination of the map would require excavating the layers of RCV and margins of Schaaf’s victories–higher in the hills; narrower in the flats–her dominance in two hills districts (District 1 and District 4) made her campaign quite hard for a crowded field of mayoral candidates to defeat.  Endorsements from Brown and Boxer were perhaps less the point than the hope inspired by the message of renewal, and deep concerns for safety that she seemed to echo.  For all the discussion of the “nuanced glimpse” that the electoral map provides into Schaaf’s victory, the divide it draws seems all to familiar–and the division between folks it excludes of the political process clear.  A clear advantage that emerged for Schaaf within the process of ranked voting only as she picked up the votes of those who had supported economist Tuman, who had finished fourth in the initial ranked-choice tabulation, picking up over 4,000 votes which gave her the absolute advantage of 49.5% of the popular vote in the penultimate round of reticulations of the popular vote, leaving Kaplan with 26.69 percent and Quan with 23.76% of the votes, and neither with a real chance–unless no voters who listed them first had chosen Schaaf second.  Yet if as much as 15% of the electorate selected only one candidate in the election–and less than half actually allocated all three votes in the election, the effective voting imbalance that RCV creates demands investigation–if only to map where those districts where ballots that did not enumerate three choices were cast.


Tuman–the only candidate who did never held a political or governmental post, but the most vociferously in favor of increased policing, who went so far as to associate his plan with NYPD chief and LAPD vet William Bratton in his search for burnishing this image–had focussed on crime, economic growth, and parking enforcement, and had finished fourth in the mayoral race of 2010; a communications professor at San Francisco State and paid political commentator, he seems to have bolstered his own career, as much as being a credible candidate, and carried no districts.  “Tuman’s vote” was undoubtedly a central means by which Schaaf obtained a decisive victory; his popularity was based in wealthier parts of the city, including Crocker Highlands, and a central platform was putting 300 more police on Oakland’s streets, and to boost the local economy by relaxing parking restrictions downtown.  And when his own ballots were exhausted, a considerable number were transferred to Schaaf’s column, putting her far over the top–and creating the appearance of the elegant alchemical transformation of a “tight” race into a “landslide.”


tuman to schaaf


15.  The question of whether the recent success of much of Oakland’s economic transformation over the past two decades, which culminated in the he growth of the Quan years, has led to an atrophying and lack of engagement with the huge area of East Oakland, and what consequences that will bring for the city as a whole.  The area we might do well to concentrate upon–the more dispossessed region of East Oakland, which gets less coverage and was less affected by Oakland’s recent economic growth or real estate boom, destined to be sandwiched between two interstate freeways that serve as obstacles to urban renewal, provides both the greatest statistical source of Oakland’s criminality as well as the site less well served and most in need of help–and seems to have tended to Kaplan and Quan.


%22East%22 Oak


This is the region where the highest numbers of shootings have been concentrated:


Shootings map


The victory by a candidate who was named first choice by less than a third of the electorate–as of now, 29.4%–suggests that she cannot be a choice of the entire city, but her constituents break on a clear divide.  Libby Schaaf has been argued by some to represent the area of the hills, an accusation she has strongly and effectively resisted in a strong campaign.  But the electoral map strikingly almost echoes a division between income, evident in how a mapping of what Oakland families lived below the poverty line in 2012, though the current distribution reaches from Adams Point to Lake Merritt, traces the boundary of thee light green districts which selected Schaaf as first-choice–and echoes Oakland’s racial divides:


Percent below poverty line, up to 40%PCT


Put another way, the poorest areas of Oakland are crammed between its two largest interstate freeways that run across the city, and this area did not tend to select Schaaf as a primary choice:


Poverty in oakland




The voters did not make up their mind about this election with conviction, to be sure:  if Quan was the first woman to be mayor of the city, Kaplan, Schaaf and Quan had been regarded as front-runners, although in a poll taken only three weeks before the election, 21% of Oaklanders polled hadn’t yet decided on their first choice, and 55% had yet to select first choices in the ballot.

The folks who seem to have been most committed to voting, however, seem to have disproportionately voted for Schaaf, distrusting Quan and attracted by Schaaf’s message of being hard on crime.  And the nasty ill-spirited sentiment that high-crime areas supported Quan because of her current crime policy, content with the status quo, and that “some groups would like to keep incompetent leadership like Quan in office.”  Although anecdotal, the mean-spirited sentiment indicates a deeply single-minded animosity filters the reading even of the distribution of the popular vote–and a deep ignorance of the attitudes on the streets to a police force that, in seniority and salary, the predominance of whom hail largely from out of town as of 2012-13–creating a particularly unbalanced topography of law enforcement as well as political economy that plays out on the ground in interesting ways.




In mapping the residences of police against commensurate salaries, a troubling picture emerges of the demand to ‘put more officers on the street’ that has unique resonances, as it seems to run against the very notion of community policing.  The deep antagonism of many Oaklanders to the police that existed before its militarization had heightened long before recent protests at the disproportionately increased attention to the testimonies of police officers in both shooting the unarmed Mike Brown in Ferguson and suffocating Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, or cutting off the flow of blood to his brain.  The below map both raises questions of how Oakland’s expenditures on its police is effectively directed toward surrounding suburban areas, and about the disconnect between neighborhood areas and the cops who police them.


Oak cops from where

opd legend

Oakland Police Department Officers’ Residency mapped by salaries/Financial Year 2010


The disproportionate share of cops retired or active that live outside of the city–and the amounts of money that is directed to pensions of retired officers living outside the city–has long received much criticism as a means of extracting urban wealth.





The accusation that some folks would prefer fewer police on the street also betrays deep ignorance of the uneven distribution of a poor voting turn-out:  even at the high turnout of 2010, the threshold was not above 45% for many of the poorer areas of the city, and was dominated by districts in the hills and the San Pablo corridor, according to this map from public data made with TileMill by GIS Analyst Ofurhe Igbinedion.


Turn-Out 2010


The deep gray trough of low-turnout along International Blvd., and below I-580, even in a high turnout election, mirrors the remove of many Oaklanders from the mayoral election.


OAK Detail


Of course, whether RVC is understood by the electorate unfortunately seems to remains unclear:  former Mayor Jean Quan was successful by asking voters to choose her as their second choice in 2010, and the difficulty with predicting the election lies in a difficulty to predict how second- and third-choice votes are decided.  But the uneven readiness to select three choices in the current election may leave many votes disproportionately counted.


16.  Returning to the present race, the comparative investedness of Oakland neighborhoods in the recent race is evident in a map showing which areas were dominated by which candidates–what regions of the Bay Area were dominated by donors to candidates–that helps track how over one million dollars of campaign money was raised in the race among the four most successful fund-raisers, Schaaf ($421, 267), Quan ($357, 284), Parker ($348,882), Kaplan ($280,876), Tuman ($261, 665) and Siegel ($206,882), which raise pressing questions about the equity of campaign finances–and shedding some light on the disproportionate amount of money spent on votes in this election.  Indeed, the close ties that this suggests of Schaaf both to vested monied interests in Oakland and in nearby areas which invested heavily in a vision of a well-governed and -policed Oakland–from Alameda to Pacific Heights Marin to Orinda, Walnut Creek and Pleasanton–suggest a considerable inflow of money from outside of Oakland.

Although Schaaf spent “least per vote” among the top candidates, her amount spent was far higher than almost all her competitors.




The deep ties of Schaaf’s campaign to a monied interests in wealthier regions around Oakland, as much as they depended for donations on the communities in the Oakland hills.  The geographic distribution Open Disclosure offers is striking since it suggests a distinctly uneven distribution of the fundraising economy that has come to drive the mayoral elections, from Marin to the Peninsula to Orinda, Pleasanton and Walnut Creek.  It shows the disproportionate role of neighborhood fundraising in determining Oakland’s elections, lest one was not aware of it, even in the face of campaign contribution limits per individual of $700 or $1400.  For a range of wealthier regions of Marin, San Francisco, and Oakland’s hills enriched Schaaf’s treasury, drawing from the Marin and Pacific Heights lands of Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer, while Tuman, Ruby, Kaplan and Siegel largely enjoyed their own very local constituencies, and Quan and Parker drew from several areas in Oakland and San Francisco.


Where candidates raised $


The candidate who raised the most money in the end in each ZIP code suggests a deeply uneven distribution indeed, with Quan increasingly edged out by Tuman and Seigel downtown, and Kaplan eating into some of Schaaf’s core hills constituency, in ways that were not evident in first choice votes on election day–and Courtney Ruby reveals similar support (the colors, confusingly, are switched for candidates here, though the scheme reflects most successful fundraising):


Final Campaing disgtributrino for fundraising


The differences where candidates were most successful in raising money reflects the final distribution of votes, though the votes were concentrated in Oakland alone, of course, and do not follow a division by ZIP.  The calculations of contributions mirrors, unsurprisingly, some of the electoral data, although Schaaf’s contributors seem to translate into more votes.  But these do not clearly mirror a picture of how Oakland looks.  Put another way, Schaaf’s contributions were clustered not entirely but primarily in north Oakland and the hills–




and were not nearly as evenly distributed across Oakland neighborhoods as, say, those of Rebecca Kaplan




What differences existed between the folks who supported Schaaf, both by donations and first choice selection, and other areas of Oakland that selected other candidates as first-choice?

Unlike the hills, much of Oakland is a renter-majority city, in which many residents struggle to find affordable housing.  A range of community-based organizations formed to respond to issues of low-income renters offer data indicates that upward of a third of these renters are regularly confronting issues of habitability and substandard housing, despite government efforts to the contrary–many of whom voted, when they turned up at the polls, for other candidates.  The same divide also maps loosely onto Oaklanders who face habitability issues–such as mold; lead paint; cockroaches; disrepair; lack of heating–in the dwellings that they rent–one index of renters v. homeowners that remains starkly geographic in Oakland, as do contentedness with the habitability of their residences:



or emergency visits to hospitals for asthma over the past year, which are compared here to the county rate:


asthma emergency visits


Those areas significantly above the county rate did not tend to select Schaaf as their first choice, raising questions about how these neighborhoods view her as mayor.  (While Schaaf was a preferred candidate in many, the low voter turnout needs to be mapped for the last election.)


around lake merritt


The unanswered question such data maps place squarely on the table–the elephant lurking in the room–is how well Schaaf will represent the city as a whole.


17.  It is too early to raise such concerns explicitly, but the large number of eligible voters who did not even cast a ballot in the city speaks volumes.  “East Oakland is a part of this city that really needs investment and love,” Schaaf noted more appeasingly, in somewhat touchy-feely tones that one wonders what they actually mean. For the city remains split in interesting ways, with many working-class sections solidly for Jean Quan, who was rejected by those in better-off areas, and Rebecca Kaplan fielding many votes in other areas, and Dan Siegel, a pro-labor lawyer and long-time strong-armed Oakland lefty, getting others; Bryan Parker, an African-American business man and director of the Port appointed by Quan, did well only in those areas closest to the port.

Mayor Quan’s rocky tenure over the last four years alienated many for different reasons, but partly through no fault of her own:   she had upset the favored candidate in 2010, after he was associated with political corruption and police unions, allying herself with a range of candidates who were, unlike their rivals who were less firmly rooted in the city, dedicated to improving Oakland.  But subsequent her performance in relation to the Occupy movement tarred her candidacy, even as the cuts and lay-offs she sanctioned in human resources, social services, the City attorney, parks, zoos, and museums had fomented Occupy protestors–and led to a recall effort.  Mayor Quan had notoriously won the 2010 election because of the system of Ranked Choice Voting:  voters selected her as second-choice in ways that elevated her above conservative democrat rival.

Schaaf, the occupant of the District 4 seat that Quan vacated, in her own campaign stressed not the problems of the city but its “awesomeness” in her campaign, celebrating the city’s newfound economic, and emerging as the anti-crime candidate able to uplift Oakland.  But Schaaf was never the populist grass-roots community-organizer Quan had been, however, and the ties that Schaaf holds to middle-class voters suggests some degree of potential working class alienation.   (Don Perata had won the hills, promising to put more police on the streets; but Quan claimed much of downtown.)  An increasingly salient index of a crisis in public confidence lies, as Michael Sierra-Arevalo has noted in October, is the growth of private security firms in the hills-areas of Oakland.  Indeed, the hiring of private security firms reveals growing distrust of the city police by literally taking policing into one’s own hands in crowd-sourced ventures, and a writing off of the ability for Oakland’s police department to provide necessary security.  Oakland seems to suffer, almost endemically, from an almost chronic absence of officers patrolling the streets.  Unlike most of the rest of the country, Oakland has indeed experienced dramatically rising crime rates in recent years–even as a significant part of the city enjoys an economic revival and an inflow of new monies and rising property values.  The external sign of such a revival is the blossoming of high-end restaurants in the Temescal and Downtown, from Lake Merritt to 51st Street, but the growth in crime in nearby areas.  Indeed, Oakland was touted as “robbery capital of America,” and the below mapping of police beats in the city didn’t help Quan.

Districts bordering on high-crime areas were not strongly against Quan, although Quan did not win Redwood Heights or Fruitvale–but the image of the mayor as soft on crime was most dangerous for her in the outlying areas of the hills.  Even though she pulled a surprise in 2010 by winning as a non-career politician who upset the popular pro-union candidate Don Perata by a margin of just 2,000 votes.  Quan’s promise to focus on revitalizing Oakland by using her skills at working in local issues–and improving Oakland as a city, she gained a bad image first with an unseemly waffling in response to the Occupy movement and then in unpopular reductions in the police and social service and never really emerged as effectively combating a rising tide of crime or able to claim a mantle of urban renewal in 2014.


18.  The search for choosing candidates that might better address questions of public safety suggest the benefits of reading such a demand for more policing of the city against recent maps of crimes in Oakland, and reveal a growing expansion of criminal activity beyond the poorest areas of the city between I-880 and I-580, stretching to San Leandro.

The striking rise of crime areas–if not focussed in Montclair, Mills College, Trestle Glen, or Redwood Heights, was too close to be comfortable for folks to stand behind Quan’s anti-crime performance as mayor:


Robbery Capital?



Yet the recent rash of robberies in Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods seems unquestionably to have been on the minds of voters because crime had moved beyond the region between the I-580 and I-880, and began to appear in critical ways in voters’ consciousness in North Oakland, Trestle Glen, the Dimond District, and Glen View or near Mills College for the first time:





Even as the real estate market has been brisk, the presence of police is precarious, and the growth of neighborhood crime has led to a blossoming of private security firms in direct response to the distrust of the police:  the growth of such firms from Skyline-Hillcrest to the Dimond district, from Crown Hills to Claremont, from Lake Merritt to Crocker Highlands, has escalated across Oakland’s middle class neighborhoods in response to fears about crime.  It would be interesting, and opportune, to map the diffusion and establishment of such private security details in Oakland over time, which extend from Glenview to the Dimond district, as well as Kings Estates, Temescal, and Maxwell Park, and Crown Ridge near Merritt College.  In large part, this has mirrored how a growth in Oakland’s economic health since 2009 has paralleled a decline in officers on the street–from 830 officers in January, 2009, 615 officers currently patrol the streets of a city of roughly 400,000 people, according to city police records, or about 167 officers per 100,000 citizens.  The recent spate of crowd-funding for private security patrols in Oakland, unified in their common charge to “take back” one’s neighborhood, united  “like-minded folk” to disaggregate from the city’s common protection.  Rockridge City Council Member Dan Kalb hopes that the rise of such private security details will never be taken as a substitute for police, but only as a supplement.  But it will be hard to turn back the spread of such local details in many areas, which reflect on the nature what sort of public spaces we want to create–and might cause us to be more introspective on our community movements.

The narratives that such private security patrols trumpet may have played a large role in the race for mayor.  They certainly stirred strong pubic emotions and debate.  By promising investigative professionalism and more patrol cars, such private security companies claimed to offer an ability to “meet both your security needs and your budget” when police seem discredited.  Local security patrols are hardly viewed as a substitute for police–and may create underlying conflicts or communications problems with police–but they are nonetheless accepted as a necessity and, increasingly, crowd-sourced to respond to fear about decreased neighborhood patrols and low police protection with rising robberies (up 54%), burglaries (up 40%), and car theft (33%).  (San Jose has, however, rejected the idea of such crowd-sourced private patrols.)  And they cite the following Property Crime Index to bolster their points, by the specter of the rise in property crimes in Oakland’s neighborhoods in ways that seem far above either California’s or the nation’s as a whole–although one would expect so much of an urban setting of endemic poverty, high truancy, and unevenly funded public education:



There is, to be sure, a regional rise of such security firms.  (In Latin America, the opportunism and collusion of police has increasingly led them to be less trusted as keepers of the peace or security, private security firms have started to comprise a growing part of the local economy:  the AP has recently described how private firms fill “security gap” across Latin America, ensuring the transport of cargo that is coveted by criminals in northwestern Mexico by international firms, or protecting wealthier clients:  in places where “people don’t necessarily trust the cops.”  Private security officers outnumber local police 2 to 1 globally, and 4 to 1 in Brazil, 5 to 1 in Guatemala, and 7 to 1 in Honduras.  Such firms employ some 4 million agents across the region, creating an industry that, if it keeps up with 9% annual growth, is projected to become a business generating $30 billion by 2016–offering private protection to those who can afford it, and asking fellow-citizens to fend for themselves.  This can have unintended consequences not yet seen in Oakland, but perhaps foreseeable:  in Venezuela one private security worker estimated that 25% of his fellow-guards commit violent crimes during off-hours.)

The neighborhoods in Oakland where crowdsourced funding has been used to create private security firms are increasingly employed are on the outskirts of the downtown, rather than in those areas.  These more monied areas such as Rockridge, Trestle Glen, or Crocker Highlands are of course in essence divesting from their trust in public government and transferring money out Oakland–while paying low property taxes, and not wanting to raise them, they are playing off of an image of a city that is ineffective in fighting crime or dealing with criminality.  The image of ineffectual city government that this practice perpetuates instills and distrust of existing government, and creates an image of a need to contain crime and criminality in Oakland’s poorer areas, and indeed to better police those areas that lie on their margins.  And indeed by looking at the crime statistics in Oakland as a whole, one can add a needed layer of information to the emotions of the electorate that lie beneath the Registrar’s interactive map, peeling back the color overlays to reveal some of the deeper fears that not only motivated the election results, but also perhaps a paratext that demands to be considered beyond the map of the election’s results.


19.  Libby Schaff’s appeal beyond the crowd who inhabit the hills may largely lie in her clear focus on the perceived dangers of public safety that are increasingly of concern in many areas outside of Piedmont or the hills, where property crime appears on the rise.  How did this appeal make her so much more successful in attracting votes within a precise demographic of the population that we don’t often identify with Oakland itself?  (And how can we not think that she was elected as white Oakland’s mayor?)

A persuasive answer may lie in her focus on crime.  The outpouring of support derived partly from endorsements, and what the city council member advocated for improving the performance of police.  The mayor-elect trumpeted a “laser-like focus on public safety,” a code word for crime, an increasing concern for the city as a whole, but the complex relation between the mayoralty and the police, and a move to a candidate who had a less apparently oppositional relation to police; Quan had not only suffered poor relations with police during the Occupy Movement, but had faced the resignation of two police chiefs one after the other in 2013.   The desire to contain an apparently growing level of criminality–at times, rampant criminality and property crimes–into the area between the I-580 and I-880, and diminish its spread in Oakland as a whole, played a large role.



Oakland 2014 mayoral


The large support that Schaaf won from District 4 and surrounding hills areas suggests a reluctance to recognize Schaaf as one of their own across a large range of some of the less privileged and lower class areas of Oakland, and indeed raise a challenge for Schaaf’s mayoralty.  Perhaps one might look more closely at the rise of crime over Quan’s tenure, and indeed the longer view that would provide a needed perspective on the situation in Oakland that Quan first confronted when coming to office in 2012.  These slightly antiquated maps of simple or aggravated assaults and violent crime (noted in brown) and property crimes (green) by which ever-versatile Michal Migursky mapped in Oakland by open data in 2008, which were so clearly concentrated between 880 and 13 freeways, or the non-affluent urban areas, and preponderantly in those that lie below the 580 freeway that formerly bisected the city’s neighborhoods.


880 and 13



The distribution of hotspots of automobile and residential burglaries in 2012 reveal a strikingly similar concentration, although the dispersion of crime through the city, although a low density of crimes–marked by circles or triangles–clouds the entire city, in ways that made hills residents quite conscious of an apparently expanding impact of robbery in their neighborhoods:





And the fairly terrifying clustering of 290 robberies and homicides over a months between September and October, 2013 reveals a concentration in those areas where Schaaf did not carry the vote so clearly:


RObberies and Homicides 2013 to now


The larger picture shows an even more specific concentration over that month:





The month mirrors the Trulia Trends Crime Maps, which created a compelling heat map of the region of the Bay Area for 2012, with a similar focus on areas west of the line created by the I-580 freeway which bisects the city east and west, and almost seems to have its epicenter in Fruitvale and Seminary:


heat map violent crime



The Oakland Police Department’s own community crime-mapping website, CrimeMapping, reveals a strikingly similar, if less legible, distribution of 275 crimes in Oakland over the last month, with a preponderance of automobile thefts (purple mini-icons) and scattered robberies (blue masked face mini-icons), and a broad smattering of assault crimes overwhelmingly focussed between the I-580 and I-880 during the first week of December:


last month Oakland Crime


Assault Crimes


But burglaries, for example, were spread far more widely over the same period of December 4-10:


Burglaries 12:4-10


and a still somewhat broader distribution of automobile theft:


OAK auto theft


These areas of crime are the areas that the Schaaf supporters want to contain, and trust Schaaf to be able to contain from the city’s other half.


20.  These maps  underscore the somewhat slightly schizophrenic identity of Oakland, CA as a city.  They reveal the steep challenge that the mayor will face generating a sense that, as a woman born in the Oakland Hills, will be able to direct needed economic intervention in:  though most any American city has its slums and poorer neighborhoods, this is an area that is almost neglected, as i as a result of the freeways that cut across the city’s communities and revealed its deep rifts.  Put in the best light possible, the election of the mayor might be an occasion for introspection on what we want Oakland’s mayor to seek to work to achieve.

Leave a comment

Filed under election maps, gentrification, Oakland CA, open data, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), scraping maps

Alternative Metrics of America’s Divided Economies #1

We’ve become increasingly accustomed to how data visualizations divide the nation.  But the proliferation of such visualizations almost carries the danger of introducing multiple metrics of diminishing effect.  While we have become so used to how they divide the nation into groups, their multiplication tends to erase the past that lies beneath them, and creates something like a parlor game of contemplating explanatory bases for divides, even indulging the  visual pleasure of parsing the nation that obscures the public good.  In cultivating a period eye of the infographic, a somewhat terrifying occurrence perpetuated now by federalist states’ rights, whose genealogy extends back to efforts to oppose desegregation, we readily consume such rapidly produced images of the nation’s divides.

Organizing the overlooked role nonprofits play across the country create an extremely sensitive marker of how we inhabit the nation, and the varied micro-cultures and economies it retains, even in an age of globalization.  The value of such a map lies less in the image that it presents of the nation as a mirror of a status quo than as a stimulus to reflection and self-examination, as well as an interrogation to the benefits that nonprofits continue to bestow on the public good at the same time as the ongoing and impending contraction of the public sector of government fails to meet those needs.  For the place of the nonprofit in our society provides a way of thinking about their relation to public needs not often met and productive ways of reshaping the status quo.  The very unevenness of the distributions of employment at nonprofits suggests questions of levels of education and legal or financial training, to be sure, as well as necessary capital for forming boards, to make us reflect on the uneven existence and acceptance of nonprofits’ roles in public life.

But if the reasons for such an uneven distribution of nonprofits across the country are unclear–as is the proportional number of positions that nonprofits hire in private-sector employment–it seems especially rewarding to parse and challenging to unpack:  for while the environments that help nonprofits remains a topic for sociological research and scholarly inquiry, the demonstrably different economies and cultures of charitable giving that encourage nonprofits suggest divides in a range of services across the nation–as does the strength of belief in the worthiness and need for the attention of nonprofits to specific issues.  The economic needs of nonprofits presents an image of the national economy that prompts more investigation of the lay of the land–and the national economy’s variegated landscape, that cut to the heart of how maps illustrate spatial divides, far more effectively than the often untrustworthy distributions of votes or political affiliations.  If we have come to privilege difference and map national divides, the landscape of nonprofits demands close scrutiny for what it tells us about the uneven nature of how nonprofits play a public role across the nation–roles with indeed might be encouraged by something as simple as the availability of both open-access on-line data, which still widely varies across America, and indeed the availability of broadband.  (The uneven distribution of the first is pictured in the header to this post.)

A quick initial compare-and-contrast between the most recent snapshot of the percentage of employment in nonprofits of all total employment to the recent metrics of “Where Men Aren’t Working” across the country suggests an almost inverse relation between employment and the landscape of employment in nonprofits–which, with local exceptions, reveal increased economic health.  But the nonprofit landscape in America is more than that, and cannot be reduced to a healthy economy alone.  The reduced presence of the nonprofit across many states mapped below must no doubt have provoked a deeper rippling effect in local and regional economies, which we will be increasingly feeling over time.


non profs in 2012

Men Not Working Map

1.  The multiple socioeconomic factors lead to such steep variations in employment at nonprofits are unclear, and can’t be reduced to single metrics since they are based on synergies.  But the uneven nature of their distribution seem to respond partly to the culture of the availability of a trained demographic, allowing possible professional donation of time, and a distinctly well-trained workforce, as well as either charitable giving–although boards are clearly important–and social needs.  The presence of nonprofits themselves also clearly impact the environments that encourage and allow the vitally important roles that they play in the local society, and generate clusters of nonprofits, with experts and legal teams, that greatly facilitate their growth in ways that meet important local needs–as well, often, as the existence of a number of trained individuals (from former teachers to health-care professionals) able to service the functioning of the nonprofit and its specific needs–a number of which were created during the recent Recession.  The importance of mapping this human geography of the public sector seems especially important in the face persistent attempts to parse, and effectively essentialize the country’s apparent political divides.  Indeed, the topography of the nonprofit provides an interesting way of illustrating differences across the nation–and the map of the spatial distribution of nonprofits addresses interesting questions of how maps illustrate spatial and cultural divides.

The uneven geography of non-profits partly responds to the uneven familiarity with the varied roles nonprofits can fill in local economies–and the existence of evidence of the benefits a nonprofit can bring to local communities.  Clear inequalities within the employment nonprofit organizations can offer mapping of the economic inequities and inequalities of public life.  The role of nonprofits in America is primarily understood as meeting a large and needed social good that would otherwise not be served–and providing a legal infrastructure for private investment to flow in ways that will benefit the public good, extending from preserving the untrammeled nature of public spaces to the effectiveness of our health needs, schools, parks, and the large artistic communities that our nation is able to foster, as well as the monitoring of the continued safety of drinking water or protection of its coasts.

The multiple roles of nonprofits deserve special consideration and hold particular import as an index of social health.  But nonprofits can also be understood as providing some 11.4 million jobs in America, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s recent measurement.  Clearly, a culture of non-profits tends to reinforce itself, and give needed momentum for the expansion of further boards, endowments, and dedication–in ways that permit a culture of nonprofit organizations or 501(c)3’s to gain legitimacy as a source of employment and indeed an effective public actor in a region.  But telling divides are evident among regions of the United States in a map that discriminates between those states that foster nonprofit activity in the country–both as a means of distributing local wealth and directing public attention to public needs.  How much does this divide show a shifting awareness of the role that nonprofits can play within the economy–not only in purely economic terms, and by providing some 5.5% of the GDP and employing some 13.7 million people, or, in 2010, about 10% of the workforce, distributed over a range of business areas including health, education, human services, environmental groups, and international affairs, as well as varied public society benefits, in 2010 and 2011–with most being quite small.   While about 2/3 the income of nonprofits came from private sources in 2010, they offer a crucial role in identifying sites for charitable giving and areas for volunteer work, as well as tax-deductible contributions.  Even despite the recession, giving grew considerably from 2000 to 2009, by 32%, but the geography of the growth in employment was considerably segregated between north and south, in ways that suggest a distinct shift among two qualitatively different sorts of economies, given the sizable contributions that nonprofits are poised to make to local economies.


2.  A clear divide had emerged by 2007, when the majority of employment at nonprofits were based largely in the northeast, it seems, as well as in the less-densely populated states of the midwest, in ways that oddly mirror a North-South divide which inexplicably extents the Mason-Dixon line across the lower forty-eight before the Recession began:


non profit employment in 2007, USA

Perhaps revealing a Scandinavian influence of Minnesota and social conscience of Wisconsonians that has begun to migrate across the country, the northern states not only have a huge edge on non-profits that employ a large number, but a different effect on local societies where they’ve grown.The percentage of non-profits has clearly solidified in the central US during the following year, which revealed something of a sizable growth of states employing over 10% in nonprofits in the year that the Recession began:


non profits 2008 in usa


What’s striking in the statistical distribution released by the US Department of Labor is its difference from the map of the over two million in the nonprofit universe among the disaggregated states in which they exist, which dismembers the nonprofit from the territory in ways that rank those states possessing the largest aggregates of nonprofits–shown here in a rainbow spectrum–without discriminating relative size.




This “pro-performance map” crafted by Guidestar in 2014 tracks the number of nonprofits alone as if this was meaningful.  To be sure, it shows a somewhat important picture of the “nonprofit universe,” which warms at the coasts, but whose topography betrays noted dip in wealth in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, somewhat able to be reconciled with the above, but a huge number of nonprofits in Texas and Florida, as well as New York, Pennsylvania, and California, in a far more disparate topography, but little sense of its topology.  The view that it affords of on the ground of the terrains in which nonprofits operate seems intentionally rendered opaque and misleading; it is perhaps designed to be more celebratory or illustrative of variations than deeply informative.

The high number of nonprofits based in both Texas and Florida, however, inversely reflects the relatively small number of employees in nonprofits in either state compared, say, to New York–which hosts a similar number of non-profits–or to California–though the huge number of nonprofits in that state greatly exceeds that of Texas.  But true variations exist on a more local level.  The numbers of nonprofits are not ranked by population density, or nonprofits’ size and volume of business or effectiveness, although the nature of this funny animal–the nonprofit–also seems to resist clear classification enough that grouping their number in aggregate may be of questionable value save for tax reasons.


3.  However, the deep disparities among regions where nonprofits might meet compelling social needs–witness the wide trough of bright yellow in the deep south, or the orange of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Idaho, more than a decreased degree of available capital, needed boards, or philanthropy.  The map of philanthropy in America interestingly reveals that the decrease in the presence of nonprofits is not necessarily in clear correlation with giving alone:  indeed, according to a recent study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the proportion of income that wealthy Americans gave to charity as a whole steadily declined as the recession began to lift from 2012, even as middle class Americans, interestingly, gave more readily to charities, as did the poor, either  as they seem to have more disposable income and cash, or as they developed more empathy–the generosity of giving among those earning $200,000 or more declined some 4.6% from 2006-12, while those earning below $100,000 annually increased the share of their income given to charity by 4.5%–creating a sizable spread–and meaning that charities and nonprofits are by no means looking only to the wealthy for support. Moreover, the map of giving across the country revealed some truly striking differences–with greater generosity existing throughout many states where somewhat fewer numbers of nonprofits tend to exist, including Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado and parts of Arizona and Nevada, as well as North Dakota and South Dakota; Georgia experienced a huge growth in its giving ration.  (Strikingly low records of giving exist in New York, measured in this way, as well as California.)


mapping philanthropy

Giving Ratio


Such an image of the “Giving Ratio” across the nation–and the sharp declines that it reveals in charitable giving in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia–as well as the generosity that it reveals in cities across the Sun Belt from Memphis to Birmingham–conceals that wide variations in economic wealth across the country, as well as the variations in the local presence and intensity of poverty or topology of need.  It also does not unpack what the charitable giving was destined to do.

It is also true that local variations in giving are difficult to classify by state alone, however, and have, as this map of Giving in the Bay Area reveals, a distinctively varied topology.



Bay Area Giving


Nonprofits depend on defining one’s vision and values, as well as the cash-flow so fundamental to making a nonprofit organization work–or attracting the needed funding and board needed to clarify philanthropic goals as the Recession lifted.  The ties to an audience before whom one is able to define both specific goals and best practices are especially critical.  The issue of employment within nonprofits might be placed in the context of total private employment (excluding federal, county, or local jobs, in other words).  But it seems to have most strikingly and stably grown in the northern states through 2012, even in the Recession–which is fundamentally a very good thing.  But the absence of a larger than 6% employment in non-profits within the private sector in a number of needy states or states with large income disparities–first and foremost, Texas–is however striking.  What makes the difficulty in defining the goals of nonprofits seems deeply tied to the sorts of settings where philanthropic projects can be effectively sold.

The proportion of those employed in nonprofits continued to grow steadily during 2012 both in Virginia and North Carolina, as in California–at which time as such employment stagnated in states like Wyoming, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina, the few without a sizable number of nonprofit employment; states in the SouthWest like New Mexico and Arizona, in ways that suggest the changing political temperatures of those regions, at the same time as Indiana grew larger in the number it had of jobs with nonprofit organizations.


non profs in 2012

The national landscape of nonprofits seems decisively tilted to the north and Blue states, or at least to exclude Texas, Wyoming, and much of the Deep South, as well as a few Red states such as Idaho and Arizona. These are places where few would ever go to work for a nonprofit organization, and probably one couldn’t imagine a well-paying job with a nonprofit, given the lesser amount of money in circulation for the public good.


4.  Shifts in employment in nonprofits charted in the above maps from the U.S. Bureau of Labor suggests several hypotheses that demand to be investigated in the future.  The data visualizations clearly show, it seems, the increasing growth and consolidation of the viable employments among nonprofits in those areas where a critical mass of non-profit works exists and circulates, informed in both best practices and opportune models of structuring of such valuable public entities, to fulfill roles not provided by government services.  To be sure, they also show the local consolidation of nonprofits’ advisory boards–not geographically limited, to be sure, but greatly informing the viability of a nonprofit community, matching congruent interests.  But they also reveal the consolidation of a perhaps incremental awareness over time of the visible results non-profits play, and the supplemental benefits that the community can draw from them:  and it is this final factor that seems most dismaying in the maps of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, because we are approaching–or seem to be–a nation in which the divided perception of the role played by non-profits might be becoming naturalized in ways that run against all of our better interests.

While one wouldn’t want to suggest that specific areas have an over-abundance of the nonprofit, there are increasing deserted stretches of the absence of employment by nonprofits, “nonprofit wastelands” where the possible public roles that such entities could play are absent from public debate.  Although the differentiation of the country is increasingly isolating the same southern states for which the Voting Rights Act stipulated “pre-clearance” for changes in electoral laws or practices in order to mitigate segregation from political involvement, the map that results suggests a distinct business culture, less directed to joining boards, providing public involvement, or being encouraged to foster communities of giving across much of the Old South.  This suggests, more than anything, a shifting topography of those states where there primarily don’t seem to be evident social concerns that command attention, or where organizations such as credit unions are needed, and the most dramatic disparities in wealth can not only be found.  One could associate these distributions in interesting ways to areas where there is less hope–both because of persistent poverty, divided here into metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, and less interest in investment or giving back–that seem endemic to Alabama, Mississippi, and sectors of Texas and South Dakota.  What is at stake is not only those areas where one can best communicate one’s vision, but where the pitch for philanthropy can be sufficiently effective to gain a sufficiently broad body of a workforce to attract works to one’s cause.  And in many sites of more persistent poverty, the requisite sort of cash flow might have dried up if it existed in recent times.




(Looking at the distribution of non metro poverty across the south, we might re-evaluate Rand Paul’s ill-spirited observation in Time magazine that “The failure of the war on poverty has created a culture of violence” in Ferguson MO that put police “in a nearly impossible situation”:  a population no longer feeling itself served by a system of justice seems the result of a persistent disenfranchisement, as much as poverty:  instead of blaming “moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair” on politicians who have betrayed trust by encouraging the “poverty trap,” we might do well to look at the deeper causes for neglect of social inequalities.  Deeply ingrained questions of unemployment are clear in tabulating the geographic distribution of folks with income lying below the poverty level state-by-state, using the American Community Survey of 2010, a synthesis from disparities in economic wealth synthesized in censuses from 1980 to 2011.




Although Wyoming does not appear a site of significant populations below the poverty level, and only a fairly conspicuous region of large non-metro poverty rates–




the 2010 Census revealed Wyoming’s three counties with high poverty rates, removed from a swaths of green.




The inverse relation can be expressed by charting the degree of income inequality at the county-by-county level, using the Gini index, which provides a far more finely grained view of inequality.  By organizing the distributions along different quintiles of income-equality, where a zero value expressed full or complete income equality or parity, the persistence of gaps in income inequality–and increase in need–can be mapped county-by-county.

To be sure, only a small range of the nation approaches much above .6, but such peaks of inequality are, somewhat terrifyingly, not only clustered contiguously, but quite clearly localized and concentrated in several specific areas of the nation’s landscape, from the tip of the Florida coast to the deep souther  sates to ares in the Dakotas to rural West Virginia:





The very areas of the south and southwest where income inequality is most pronounced int he 2011 American Community Survey suggests a distinct social topography, one where the incomes of workers at nonprofits are unlikely to congregate or be as visible parts of the local economy, creating the precedents and models for nonprofit action in public life.  Not only are  non-profits less likely to have as high or elevated a social profile, but the sorts of jobs done by the nonprofits and services that they render, often designed to supplement the shrinking presence of federal government in public life or engagement in venues from public education to the environment, invisible or rarely present.  What sort of map would be devised to better illustrate this uneven topography of the nonprofit?  Perhaps a map of the layers of individual sort of nonprofits across counties, that would comprehend the variations in the range of causes that nonprofits might address–which would better show the lacuna or absences of the work of nonprofits, from hospitals to credit unions to afterschool groups to environmental watchdogs, that fill increasingly needed roles across the country.

Does this relate to the distribution of nonprofits, those engines of the redistribution of capital and distributors of benefits of social wealth?  The goods and services that nonprofits generate would be made more visible, in short, integrated into the sort of OpenStreetMap template to chart the relative dearth or multiplication of nonprofits as the very services that nonprofits provide society–often not only supplementary but complementary to the services available in a purely for-profit firms and contractual arrangements, as Hansmann suggested (Hansmann 1980) but also, as economists David Easely and Maureen O’Hara classically argued, as providing activities not offered or able to be contracted in a purely for-profit economy.  Illustrating the diverse ranges that their services fill across the country would be a start to generate a picture of the topography of the needs filled by and goods contracted through nonprofits that individual state statutes allow.  If such a map could be correlated with the local topographic variations across the country’s landscape reveals the varied constraints that nonprofits face and encounter in providing these needs, the different cultures that are created by nonprofits, as much as that nonprofits simply reflect, might be mapped.

The improvement of social welfare that are often among the outcomes of nonprofits might be evened out or at least comprehended as a result, rather than be naturalized or written off as part of the status quo, and the shifting rules in which nonprofits work better understood.  Indeed, working toward the articulation of a clear vision and mission depend on a possibility of finding a believable middle ground which may not readily exist in several states.  They make us want to start to ask what sort of society in which we want to live, and how we might best attend to the severity of the range of economic  inequalities and inequities of access to education that persist across the country.  In an era of increasingly uneven access to technology–and the areas of technological expertise from which nonprofits can benefit–we are, moreover, increasingly in danger of perpetuating the uneven distribution of opportunities for nonprofit employment across the land.  Which would be not only a shame, but have deep consequences for the country’s future political debate.

For while we pretend that the political space of the country is uniform, it is not, and the unequal basis of national infrastructures starts from the basic inequalities in access to broadband, still mostly concentrated in the northeast and region around Lake Michigan, as well as the larger megacities on the west coast from Los Angeles and San Diego to San Francisco and Seattle, with Denver thrown in.  An attempt at evening the ground for the development of nonprofits in different areas might be to reduce extreme variations in the maximum advertised speed and availability of broadband across areas of the country, 3 – 6 Mbps to 1 Gbps+–evident in the near-absence of high-speed broadband in a state like Wyoming–


Max Download Speed BB


or the troughs evident in the number of broadband providers available across different regions, and the clustering this creates, not to mention the deserts in Arkansas:


Served-Unserved # providers 2 to 6



or the numbers of providers offering broadband access


Nubmer of Poviders offering access


or national variations in typical download speeds:


Download speeds


download speed legend


The relative lack of broadband providers in high Gini coefficient regions of persistent poverty unsurprisingly align with those where relative opportunities nonprofit employment is lowest–if the roles that nonprofits might play perhaps most prominent.


BB Providers, 2-12


While such maps, available for further scrutiny at far greater local detail courtesy the Federal Communications Commission’s interactive Broadband Map, may seem far removed from the differences in non-profits, high-speed downloads and access provides one of the crucial channels to jumpstart nonprofits’ activities and provide something of a level playing field in which–pardon the laissez faire rhetoric–nonprofits can grow.  Recent debates about ensuring national net neutrality allow an equality of broadband access that is the basis for preventing further divides from becoming more exacerbated–with deep consequences for the future of political debate and discussion in the United States, as well as institutions of social welfare, in the immediate future.  Allowing corporations to gain privileged possession of a “fast lane”–and shunting all others into a “slow lane”–would leave the country with a two-tier system of access to and availability of resources that are not only individual, but would effectively discourage the growth of nonprofit work in many areas that need it most, and have to deal, as a result, with the lacuna that are embedded in a purely for-profit marketplace.

The crowd-sourced responses of FCC Consumer Broadband Test reveals where the ISP speed was regarded as insufficient used responses to a deeply relative question, but compellingly shows–in a map where red is used to note a negative, and green a positive, a mixed message about the availability of services in some of the areas where it is perhaps most needed to exist as a framework for needed social services:


Crowd-Soruced feedback on ISP


The FCC’s Consumer Broadband Test informatively measured reported download speed-tests for broadband across the same regions, with those at the lower end of the spectrum indicating the lower speeds of delivery in ways that indicate a typical for poorer regions of the country.  Doing the best to increase internet service to level these uneven levels of service provides a needed corrective to the relative absence of nonprofit entities.


Speed-Tests v. Advertised:Typical


Speed Tests:Legend



One might profitably measure not only the speed of downloads, however, but the vitality of open access data across the United States, however, to arrive at a better metric for the data-sharing that is not only necessary but important to conduct business for non-profits–and measures the culture of open data across the land.

The image of the repository of open source addresses Michal Migurski compiled provides a neat map of those places where municipal governmental data is online and available in the US, creating a database which folks can readily use and build off of in their work:





While this rendering can include state-mandated municipalities and not be that illuminating of some regions without open data online, available open data provides a basis for the work of many nonprofits on a large scale, and is conspicuous by its absence save for around fifteen points of light in a large region of the south where markedly lower numbers are employed in non-profits–as a reverse-color illumination maps reveals.


OA data


While we usually use the metaphor of the “shadow economy” to describe the black market, and we have come to refer to “black sites,” since the administration of George W. Bush, as those secret sites at which the National Security Council of the Bush presidency permitted the CIA to build, in order to torture those suspected of ties to terrorist organizations.  But the true areas of the economy that must remain ensconced in shadows are the areas without nonprofits, where the service due sectors of the economy is absent or less actively attended.  This reverse-color mapping is meant to suggest the dark that is left in nonprofits’ void.  To be sure, many centers of nonprofits attend to areas and regions outside of their immediate vicinity:  they serve forests, or legal services, or open waters.  But there is a lack of a sense of that service in areas which remain in the shadows in the above map.  There is, in ways that suggest a deep divide needing to be remedied, that persists in the new Deep South, where one looses one’s orientation on much of the land between Houston and Atlanta, or Dallas, Memphis, and Jacksonville:


OA data US South


The dense bursts of light that cluster around the coastlines of California and hug the shore cede to a vast open expanse, it seems, in the Western states, with stretches of empty space between, as one moves from a concentration dense with nonprofit works to stretches where this would be poorly understood as a line of work–or maybe even as a set of services that goes unmet.


West Coast



The dark spots and even more dark regions across the nation map a desert of non-profits, where social services go unmet, water safety less monitored, literacy tutoring in low profile, after schooling limited, hope diminished, parks untended, and wildlife not preserved.  The critical role of nonprofits in the economy is absent, and both the economy and the society feels the deeply deleterious effects.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Community Survey, data visualizations, mapping the nonprofit economy in America, Non-Profits in America, nonprofit economy, nonprofits, persistent poverty, Recession, statistical maps