On the Growing Global Migration of Guns

Although we’ve been often enjoined in frequent months to fear Syrian immigrants as posing potential threats to our national safety, rather than with sympathy.  But the specter of terrorist threats that arrive from afar–and of Muslims suspected as terrorists–has helped to deflect attention from the unprecedented scale of the circulation of small arms within our borders–as well as from outside of them.  Indeed, few are conscious of the expanding traffic and sales of firearms worldwide, from the trusted Kalashnikov pictured in the header to the increased guns that have entered circulation–and the problem of encompassing their traffic and its effects pose steep cognitive challenges.





The heightened availability of guns and the expansion of the national gun trade, however, seems more deeply dangerous to our safety than anything arriving from outside of our frontiers.  Indeed, in pointing to the dangers of terrorist threats, we may fail to take account for the scope of the growing traffic in guns–and indeed the trafficking and “migration’ of guns world wide, lest they fail to be more clearly mapped.

It seems easier to fear a refugee, after all, than the firearms whose open circulation ever expands.  The purported threat of sleeper cells entering the country’s allegedly increasingly fragile borders is both a casualty of a toxic Presidential race and a crisis in global geography, in which eyes are easily drawn to red flags raised on nations’ borders, while expanding trading zones of firearms or munitions are rarely mapped with any attention to detail.  The impossibility to map or foresee threatened firearms attacks are in fact imagined at a remove from the routes that firearms actually take.  For we repeatedly re-map the scope of the global refugee crisis in hopes to indicate its seemingly unprecedented scope, and increasingly pronounced local reactions to the increased number of Syrian refugees, but fail to map the ever-expanding market for rapid-fire guns–including that most “democratic” of all weapons, the streamlined Kalashnikov.

But as we do so, we ignore threats of an expanding free market in firearms which has grown so rapidly to be difficult to map, let alone tally.  Although firearms and guns that are the tragic means to perpetrate recent attacks that have cost increased numbers of lives as well as bodily and psychic casualties, the expansion of licit and illicit trading zones of small firearms has occurred in recent years that make discussions of declining violent crime in the nation, the astounding number of over 30,000 deaths from firearms this year–arriving at a rate 130,000 people shot each month–so surpass abilities for easy comprehension to take the eye off of the increased number of firearms in open circulation.  And so, when we point to the dangers of refugees, we find a target that displaces attention from maps of shootings in our own neighborhoods,


USA Shot by GUns

Slate/Gun Violence Archive

the lack of decline of firearm-related deaths in the country, the persistently growing number of firearms-related incidents, or the number of mass shootings since Sandy Hook, and, of course, from the circulation of increasing numbers of firearms.  And we do not even know how these guns move–although, according to work of Everytown Research, the expansion of unlicensed gun sales over the internet, social media, and site such as armslist.com have been tied to increased gun violence; such sites indeed attract buyers with criminal records–mostly including domestic violence and felon records that would prohibit them from legal gun sales–as a way to circumvent background checks, but provide an increasing means to transport guns in need of legal oversight.


Mass Shootings Since Sandy HookVox/ShootingTracker.com


There is, after all, considerable quantifiable satisfaction in indicating numbers and routes of immigrants from the Middle East that can be clearly mapped–as if they contained the sleeper cells of Jihadist threats–but a failure to map the expanding circulation of guns that are the means for such disruptive violence or even to comprehend the scale and stakes of the global gun trade.  For it places one at a somewhat myopic remove from understanding the nature of terrorist threats.   Perhaps we’re blinded to it, in part, given how much more common gun ownership remains in the US than in other countries.

The growing circulation of firearms and automatic rifles across countries is not a reason for, so much as a consequence of terrorist activity.  But it is the chosen and highest impact route for orchestrating attempts at violently and suddenly destabilizing a state and civil society.  The Kalashnikov, indeed, looks like a somewhat remote and less grizzly reminder of the spate of gun violence we have increasingly seen in recent years, often through automatic guns outfitted with much more rapid-fire magazines.  But the suggestion of foreign agents who might perpetrate gun violence raises more curiosity than obfuscation.  And so, when several governors in the United States took to identify points of vulnerability in groups of Islamic immigrants, they openly demonized the foreign provenance of a population of refugees, in a synecdoche unduly violent and ungrounded.   The readiness with which state governors took it upon themselves to try to ease panic by directing attention to refugees’ entry into the country–even as some questioned whether “states have the authority to decide whether or not we can take refugees”–certainly suggests a dangerous degree of myopia.

Their show of bravado not only undermined human rights accords, but almost directs attention from the growing danger of multiplying markets of guns among those “engaging in the business,” legally or illegally, of selling guns.   For the problems of understanding the expanding paths by which ever-increasing numbers of guns circulate–path far less easily tracked, but also challenging collective comprehension.   The construction of the United States as a closed universe–all too easily visualized as a hermetically sealed land of local governance–seems a particularly perilous premise in a landscape of the international flows of firearm trading, however helpful it is to indicate the stances each governor took.   The constellation of quasi-autonomous political entities seems unrealistically impervious to the undercurrents that lap its shores.


Governors and Immagrants.png

National Public Radio (November 15, 2015)

By trumpeting such fake fears, the lack of orientation to the scale alone of guns’ sale is obfuscated, since it is so hard to articulate compared to fears of terror attacks by sleeper cells.   (Insisting on the need to ensure our borders, they ignore that many Syrian refugees referred for refugee status in the US are children under 12 years in age.)   The proposed protective closure of state boundaries distract us from the broad dimensions with which guns have come to circulate at large–and indeed the disorienting nature that the circulation of guns has within most things we can actually measure.  If Justin Peters found, based on data six years old,  approximately 310 million firearms to exist in the United States–a count broken down into 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns–but the numbers are not complete.  A $489 million domestic market for non-military assault-style rifles Smith & Wesson reported in 2011 has grown, according to the Freedom Group, at a compound annual rate of 3 percent and for assault-style rifles at almost 30%; the NRA reported at least 1,626,525 AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles sold in domestically from 1986 to 2007, whose numbers have since grown far beyond 2.5 million; including foreign-made rifles, the count of assault-style rifles alone surpasses 3.5 million.

Meanwhile the United States continues to shatter records in surging exports of global arms sales, exceeding the 66 billion dollar record high of 2011, far beyond the $31 billion record of 2009, and totaling the $67.3 billion exports of armaments sold in 1994-96 in a single year:  another $7 billion worth of excess surplus arms it exported at free or deeply discounted arms rates from 1990-95.  And as the US government continues to shatter records in global arms sales, it sets something of a message for the growing traffic in arms worldwide.  The collective growth of a global traffic in arms goes scarily unmapped, as we have lost a sense of how many guns in fact circulate world-wide.  It conceals a deep ignorance of the actual vectors or pathways of global violence in the traffic of guns and assault weapons whose numbers have not only increased but so dramatically grown in the United States alone that we have no actual idea how many firearms are actually in circulation–if those entering circulation has risen dramatically, as revealed in the number of monthly background checks over ten years–and almost inexorably so since 2008.

monthly-permit-related-nics-checks-1999-2014NRA/Institute or Legislative Action


1. The solemn insistence by governors to refuse to admit refugees for public safety obscures the almost four-fold growth in the number of guns in circulation in the US from 2000.  We not only just don’t know how many hundreds of millions of guns are in circulation, since the self-reported number is rarely willingly disclosed with true accuracy–“especially if [gun-owners] are concerned that there may be future restrictions on gun possession or if they acquired their firearms illegally,” as the Pew Research Center concluded in 2013.  We don’t know how many guns circulate in the nation.  And this was before 2015 brought more background checks than any year in American history–even if such checks are only required in but fourteen states.  To be sure, the conjuring of terrorist threats migrating in concealment diverts attention from how the circulation firearms provide tools to perpetrate such deadly attacks.

As if in concert with accusations of national weakness and the need to secure frontiers, the expansive global currency in light firearms and assault weapons may indeed puncture The increasing ease of purchasing and accumulating assault weapons defines terrorism as nothing else:   acts of terror reflect expanding of a “free” legal and illegal market of firearms,  which permits the sort of domestic stockpiling of arsenals by individuals, as much as the indoctrination of terrorists over the internet by indoctrinating videos.   Amedy Coulibaly famously kept an array of AK-47s and ammunition stacked in a hamper in his home.  And the firearms legally purchased firearms as the AR-15’s used in the  San Bernardino mass shooting, bought at a local retail chain, Turner’s Outdoorsman, and later modified with larger capacity magazines–raising questions of whether the arms should be sold without clearer background checks, even as other voices remain firm that concealed weapons could have prevented the deadly attacks Tafsheen Malik staged with with AR15s, before fleeing in a black Ford Explorer with more than 1600 bullets in the car.




Despite demands to create better surveillance and management of bullet sales, fears of government encroaching on gun ownership led the AFT to openly withdraw the proposals.






It is not any secret that the proportions of the growing global traffic of arms has escalated in particularly dizzying ways.  Providing a better mapping of the scale and circulation of the transaction of such assault rifles may not be a measure against their later use.  But better mapping their density and volumes of scale seems increasingly important when illegal gun trafficking is increasingly incumbent in a thriving underground and above-ground gun trade.  Is defense of permissive attitudes to gun sales really an excuse for not mapping the migration of guns in actual inter-connected webs of human exchange?

The increased fetishization of ‘open carry’ in America seems something like a terrifying public pronouncement of one’s ability to exist in a world without clear purchase on the increasing numbers of guns that have come to be regularly exchanged–and even carried openly in public in times of peace.


Bill Pugliano Gun Activitists    Bill Pugliano–Getty Images


Assault weapons are not only purchased at gun shows or sporting good stores, but are in need of better mapping nationwide.  About 50,000 yearly cross state lines on underground networks of interstate traffickers, often subverting one state’s gun laws by arriving on highways, by FedEx, or from states with markedly different gun laws, often under the eyes of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  While admittedly based on the guns that arrived in cities from other states that were confiscated by police, the pathway of underground sales to urban areas are particularly striking, and dangerously remove gun sales from any official monitoring or oversight.  Although it often repeated that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” the arrival of guns under the noses of authority suggests not only an evasion of laws, but thriving illegal markets for guns, some foreign.


gunflow-bigmap-1050New York Times, based on data of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

If gun trafficking is a major inter-state offense, a significant number of the trafficking cases for guns involve international illegal trafficking of firearms across borders, mostly with obliterated serial numbers, making it difficult to identify exact numbers of guns or ammunition that reach foreign countries with certainty–in postal shipments or by underground routes of gun trafficking.



Everytown Research


We can understand the basis for such traffic from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Florida through the uneven geography of enforcing background checks at gun shows reluctant to admit that they “engage in” firearm sales.


Background Check policies.png

Governing, from Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

More clearly mapping the increased pathways of travel taken by firearms seems a far more opportune response to terrorism, as tracing the multiple pathways assault weapons take provides a basis to better to comprehend the growing dangers of assault.  And despite President Obama’s decision to not harp on the need to map guns better in his State of the Union address, only a better mapping of the traffic and movement of guns can present a better image of gun sales–and indeed suggests cultivation of an individual bond to guns.

The ease of access to assault rifles in the United States and diminished checks to their purchase or policing have had limited attention until recent months.  Despite deep fears exploited in suspicions about the hidden infiltration of the country by terrorist threats, far less attention has focussed on the needed tracking of the illegal transit of firearms across borders:  in an age when we are apt to concentrate on social media as a tool of indoctrination of subversive and on mass-migrations as hidden vectors enabling flexible geographical mobility of terror networks, it’s perhaps overly retro to focus on the itineraries of the  transport of mundane material things like guns.  Tracking the physical movement of small guns, rifles and other firearms, and the transport of assault weapons such as the popular Kalashnikov reveals the deeper social relations encouraged by the greater circulation of firearms–and indeed an increasingly global sense of cathecting to guns.  The paths by which guns reach the hands of their users isn’t as interesting, perhaps, as the uses made of them, but demands to be far more closely tracked.

Attention to firearms’ rapidly increasing availability in the United States is relatively recent–partly in light of the limited oversight of hobbyists “engaged” in selling guns–but also is a microcosm of the growth of a global market for firearms.  Indeed, increased sales of arms as well as applications for concealed weapons permits suggest an increasingly vicious circle between escalation of sales in response to announcements of gun control policies, leading gun salesmen to crow that “Obama is our best salesperson,” and gun sales to double over his administration; mass shootings have not only accelerated sales, but created new currents of gun transports, as well as growing numbers of first-time applications for concealed handgun permits with mass shootings, as well as a growing geography of places accepting open carrying of handguns in reactions to fears of gun violence, and agitation from pro-gun groups to change laws to allow open carry and conceal carry as a right to self-defense in a country whose residents seem increasingly desperate to seek safety.


OG-AC384_openca_G_20140822132909Wall Street Journal


Increased number of mass shootings have partly prompted gun sales in ways from which manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson have been able to consciously profit–whose sales channel further funds to the NRA–and the webs of gun sales both in the country and on an international scale demand to be mapped.  More detailed mapping of the growing global exchange of military materiel–tracing where guns go–however raise tantalizing questions about networks of global firearm exchanges as the dark side of globalism in what might be called Pynchonian proportions.   The novelist Thomas Pynchon has returned with what seems quite considerable prescience to the motifs of the circulation of rockets, rifles, grenades, or small bombs–often encoded with cyphers–as the telling modern talismans of global exchange; mapping the trade in arms, one of the historical items of global trade, reveals eery global networks in the post-Cold War world that demand to be more broadly mapped through the  routes that guns are increasingly disseminated across channels of illicit as well as public exchange.  More than ever, the hydra headed illicit trafficking of arms–as well as the “legal” arms trade–seems an emblem of globalism.

But the routes of the licit and illicit transportation of guns indicates increasing cultivation of firearms as powerful forms of human-object relations–a relationship which oddly links such terrorism to mass shootings, though the two threats are quite distinct.  And the transport of firearms have also so intensified globally to demand to be better mapped, as much as the question of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms demands to be better clarified.  (In the span of a single recent year, over 644,700 ads for guns from those without licenses to sell were tallied by Everytown Research in the single online marketplace Armslist.com, most not selling only individual firearms.)  Visualizing the global context of the local pathways exchange of small firearms provides a way to consider global changes in firearm exchange on a local level that is particularly illuminating–and to identify global markets of small arms exchange for mobile arms of considerable force, including automatic assault rifles such as the Kalashnikov pictured in the header to this post, one of the most popular and most widely produced of firearms.




2.  Exposing the global markets of small guns was the ostensible subject of Google‘s 2012 dayglo “Chrome Experiment” on arms trafficking, although the both striking and shocking big data visualization focussed on legal trade alone.  Nonetheless, the interactive 3D maps ofer a cool tool to investigate what globalization looks like, in a sort of weather map of the arms trade that occurs above board and in the open.  The “experiment” offers a sort of landscape of small arms markets for ready scanning, letting one to rotate the globe interactively to create the best vantage point on aggregated data from reported imports and exports, or “over-the-counter” gun sales.

The gloriously color-saturated interactive Globe allows viewers to rotate the globe in different manners to chart the global traffic of firearm imports and exports in surprising fashion.  The exports and imports are mapped from individual countries, while parallel bars break the official numbers down into ammunition and small firearms, allowing one to parse the massive flows of armaments that proceed from larger mega-states like the USA to the world.  The weirdly aestheticized images will make viewers oscillate between wonder, stupefied awe, and depression.  It’s a strikingly powerful visualization of major arms providers, like the United States, as it illuminates their traffic, and in scanning the globe that we can turn interactively, we can compare the somehow huge exports of ammunition the US manufacturers send to the world–the huge importation and exportation of firearms in the US compare to the incredible 85 plus million imported in Canada (where guns and ammunition are less often manufactured) or far smaller number imported in Mexico, where few guns are allowed in personal possession, unlike the US.

One can visualize the the global dispersion of imports (blue) and exports (red) moving around the globe in animated vectors, coursing with an intensity of white hot fashion:


Googling Gun TradeInteractive Globe: Small Arms and Ammunition-Imports and Exports


The interactive map is a sort of GL 3D experiment, and foregrounds the rotatability of the globe to seek the best angle by which to visualize each country’s collective import-export business of arms and ammunition.  For larger arms exporters like, say, the Russian Federation, the results are spectacular–the RF streams over 140 and a half millions of dollars worth of small exports (mostly to client states) and imports another 36 million worth, here shown coursing the globe in pulsating red and orange neon arcs; the thin blue streams of imports contrast to major rivers of exports to Russian client states.  The global format has clear advantages for visualizing major arms providers–although the maps eerily disembody and almost naturalize the arms trade.  The graphic rendering of the small arms trade can’t help but seem–even if this is not its primary intent–somehow celebratory about its explosive energy, so that one can forget what the sort of small arms and firearms traded actually are, segregated as they are from any mortal consequences:


big export of arms and Russian Fed.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports


The impact is similarly stunning, if less grandiosely global, for smaller states in hot spots as Serbia, as it allows one to look at the globalization of arms, struck by the relatively few bright blue lines of arms importation, and the flow of $28 million of legally exported arms from the small country that chart the remapping of its global significance circa 2010 with a similarly sinister white-hot glow, revealing the surprising scale of its huge exportation of arms worldwide:


Serbian arms exchanges.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports


There is a similar odd balance between local and global in the collective arms trade from neighboring Croatia, a major exporter of materiel and transatlantic provider of arms:


CroatiaGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports


or examine the glow of flows of exports and imports to and from Hungary-


HuNgArY war flows.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports


and the local importer of arts, its Balkan neighbor Montenegro, which seems to import a considerable amount of arms indeed–


Montenegro 2010.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports


3.  Such enticingly glittering global networks leave us in awe at the massive amount of arms trafficked, as if what passes under the radar would be insignificant in comparison.  But it makes us thirst for better local knowledge.  Small is beautiful in mapping local knowledge of the mechanics of the hidden paths guns travel, as well as their licit sales, which prove far more multi-causal and serpentine than the broad brushstrokes afforded by “where the world buys its weapons”–and it reveals the patterns of illicit gun transport, accumulation and sales.  But, most disturbingly, they are utterly removed from human agency, as if such geopolitically inflected macroeconomic flows are actually alienated from paths of traffic on planet earth.

Indeed, local pathways are perhaps more illuminating when it comes to arms traffic–especially, of course, of illicit trade in arms not revealed in such global macroeconomic images.  For few of the actual arms we want to track circulate stratospherically along the aeronautical routes the Google rendering suggests.  Despite the benefits of Google’s glossy macroeconomic global view, what would it mean to make this mapping more local, more closely focussing on local transport of individual arms by itineraries, or to try to track hidden on-the-ground routes of firearms supplies?  The big data maps almost make you want to wonder what went on to the individual materiality of arms themselves, which vanish into so many brilliantly coursing data streams.

Mapping local routes of arms travels, if less glamorous or flashy, seems increasingly timely, if less interactive or dynamic in form.  But together with varied maps of the same regions, they provide another way to visualize networks of violence, civil war, or terror.  The basis for the transport of Kalashnikovs lies in large part in regions in the Balkans, as Montenegro, which provide pathways by which they are carried to Schengen lands.


Spread of Kalashnikovs

The Guardian

The uncontrolled smuggling of arms in the Balkans, recently a veritable hub for the illicit arms trade, led the United Nations Development Program to give a mandate to the Pynchonian entity of the South Eastern and Eastern European Clearing House for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, acronymized as SEESAC; uncontrolled weapons trafficking in the region increased its chronic instability and fueled local crime, with a arms exports in the western Balkans amassing $1.6 billion between 2007-13, and little data available on illegal trade arms trade that is increasingly a problem of global proportions.  Of course, it parallels the primary route for the burgeoning business of routes to smuggle asylum across the western Balkans, for which some €16 billion was payed to middlemen since 2000–



Der Spiegel


–following routes that almost directly mirror the popular pathway for the also lucrative heroin trade from Afghanistan, onto which it might well be superimposed:


Balkan Route MAP_UNUNODC


and global routes of a metric tons of heroin carried on a modern and more mechanized Silk Road moving across Asia to European markets:


Heroin from Asia, etric tons.pngUNODC


But the trajectories of assault rifles across the Balkans have allowed amateur armories to be assembled by folks like Amedy Coulibaly and Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who planned and executed attacks at the office of Charlie Hebdo, including multiple AK-47s, Scorpions, handguns and semiautomatic rifles,  van loads of arms, often of Soviet production, from the 7.62-mm Tokarev rifle to the AK-47 with which Coulibaly infamously decided to pose beside in the curated message he would stream to the world after he had killed four innocents at a Kosher Deli in Paris.  (Coulibaly neatly stacked those AK-47’s and their ammunition in a laundry hamper in his home.)

Perhaps the pietas of commemorations for the eponymous designer of the assault rifle of which all others are epigones, Lieutenant-General Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, who designed multiple rifles in his post within the Chief Directorate of the Red Army, suggests a growing migration of the gun particularly fitting in light of their newfound mobility–particularly the migration of the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947, or AK-47, designed in prototype for a 1946 design competition to defend Mother Russia, and which has proved one of the most easily transportable assault weapons of the twentieth century.


Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 (type 2)


The arrival in 2011 of the renowned Kalashnikov assault rifle in London’s Design Museum, in homage to the curved grooves of the machined geometry of its magazine, as well as in an opportune expansion of museum audiences by gesturing to current questions of terror, may reflect the prominence of the objection modern life.  Its display surely mirrors the central place of the gun the Kalashnikov’s very own eponymous museum in Russia, which also features inviting exhibits like “Let’s recall Afghanistan!”, an anniversary special to commemorate withdrawal from that land–the museum opening was actually attended by its designer, the recently deceased Lietenant-General for the Red Army who designed the assault rifle as an effective arm to “defend the mother country” during World War II.


4.  Far from being a purely historical relic, however, the arm that was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, here carrying a copy of the arm he both built and designed together with a group of weapons’ engineers, was intended for arctic combat.  But the assault rifle enjoyed huge staying power, or legs:  about 100 million of which are currently in circulation globally and some million more are built annually for a growing clientele.


521Михаи́л Тимофе́евич


At almost the same time as its designer’s death, the rifle entered the London’s Design Museum, in an attempt to enlarge its “classics” that marks the migration of the Soviet Union’s old Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, now the world’s most popular assault weapon, to the territory of esthetics and museum docents.  Whether it belongs in an exhibition in a e Design museum apart, the translation of the automatic assault rifle from the Arctic (where it had been developed) to the battlefield, and from illegal arms markets all the way into a modern exhibition space.

Even if the AK-47 assault rifle is removed from our own tragic familiarity with rifles in the United States, the widespread currency that it has gained as a rapid-fire weapon from central Africa to Indonesia suggests the heinous crimes with which it can be tied–as well, perhaps, of the far greater proximity of the firearm in question to London’s Design Museum than, say, the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York or to MoMA.




Much of this has to do with regional geography.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and military famously led such gun-entrepreneurs as Viktor Bout to trade AK 47’s that were Cold War surplus during the 1990s to the armories of African warlords, including those in Rwanda, as he also supplied them to UN peace-keepers there.  Using a fleet of retired Antonov and Ilyushin military fighter jets to ferry firearms to Angola, Liberia–where he helped Charles Taylor destabilize the country of Sierra Leone–and Nigeria, helping to saturate the continent with firearms, as well as introduce them with rapidity into the Ukraine.  Despite the arms embargo imposed on Somalia, private militias and warlords stock AK47s.

5.  To be sure, the trade in firearms is anything but new, and tends to blossom in the aftermath of wars, as materiel is traded privately in what were once war fields to willing buyers.  If there was something romantic in how Dutch colonists and traders introduced 300,000 carbines to the Gold Coast during the mid- to late nineteenth century that were marketed by clever munitions suppliers and manufacturers for global export–




An increasingly broad trade in obsolete French and Belgium weapons emerged in Ethiopia in the post-war period that prefaced a new theater of international weapons trading, as arms exporters, revealed by this image of an apparently innocent arms manufacturer who instructs his prospective clients on how a rifle worked.  Italian munitions manufacturers soon shipped Remingtons, as Jonathan Grant noted, to Ethiopia as well, setting the stage for global arms exports over the twentieth century that so rapidly accelerated after the end of World War One marked an attempt to contain the growing arms market worldwide, as emblematized in the full ceramic sculpture that adorned a Belgian arms factory specialized in the export of arms openly vaunts the irculation of arms it promotes in new markets as part of a civilizing process of instructing locals to develop their relation to firearms.


4-3-img1807Lambert Sevart weapons factory in Liege, Belgium, ceramic inlay

Post-WWII surplus allowed the market to expand wildly, and weapons surplus was recycled and resold in the Americas, with Samuel Cumming’s emergence as a licensed arms dealer, largely stored in Manchester, England and Alexandria, Virginia, in parallel to country-to-country sales of weaponry in the Cold War, when the AK-47 came to dominate the international light arms trade, even as American withdrawal from Vietnam made it heir to two million M16s and 150,000 tons of rifle ammunition that became the basic currency of barter Communist Vietnam circulated to trading allies.  As Third World countries devoted $258 Billion to arms between 1978-58, the United Nations Development Program estimates a trade of 8 million light arms and weapons in West Africa alone–a legacy of the many firearms that reached the continent after the Cold War that have continued to recirculate to non-state actors (in Mali or the Maghreb) or secessionist movements to use in armed conflicts (as Boko Haram in Niger), or in coups, providing “legacy firearms”–of which assault rifles still prove the largest group, most of which are Kalashnikovs.

Although the flows of firearms are not consistent, UNODC has suggested broad patterns of sale to local buyers, including from Libya’s large stock of conventional firearms.


Firearms in W AfricaUnited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Report on Firearms–Firearms Flows


Based on thirty recent gun seizures between 2008 and 2011, traffic in arms in Africa remained high, fueling warlords, nations and wars alike–


weapons transfersUNODC

The transport of Russian war materiel on conventional means as ships has allowed a brisk trade in Kh-55 Cruise Missiles with Iran and surface-to-air missiles to Ethiopia from St Petersburg that continued through 2014, and was later replaced by the increasing value of seaports in Ukraine’s Oktyabrsk port as points of departure for arms to Assad’s failing Syrian regime at a considerable swifter arrival time:




The spiking shipments from Odessa and Oktaybrsk remained a vital basis of sending further arms in container ships through the Bosphorus strait–across which refugees still try to move–to Damascus, in a stream of replacement parts for battlefield weapons in the continuing civil war that effectively assures the desperate flow of refugees from their land.




The continued export of global weaponry and related gear that leaves Ukraine to Syrian ports such as Latakia and Tartus constitute a broad geopolitical tactical game, of course, partly hidden, in which Russia is not at all alone–and one that is often engaged through hidden channels, as conventional weapons are disseminated from the US, Russia, Germany, and France to a growing number of client-countries at the start of the second millennium echoes lines drawn during the Cold War.


The five largest exporters of major conventional weapons -2004-2008 and 2009-13- and their recipient states -2009-13


But the rise of such webs of weapons transport from Ukrainian ports may have been overlooked in calculating the region’s geopolitical value as a transport-hub for the delivery of a range of wartime materiel from tanks, ammunition, SAMs, to automatic rifles like AK-47s to the Middle East, facilitated by a rail network connecting arms plants across a region Cold Warriors know as the “FSU” (Former Soviet Union)–including the Izhevsk factory where Kalashnikov long worked–so that such weapons factories from the Cold War could continue to fill standing orders for shipments from Oktyabrsk.  The geopolitical capital of Ukraine as a region may rest in good part in allowing the ongoing transport of war material to a broader range of the region  Russia considers its sphere of influence for Bashar al-Assad and others, as well as oil pipelines and the global significance of the region as being a nexus of energy transport.


Rail Weapons Transport in RUssia, FSU weapons


The networks by which firearms continue to move, and the ease with which they do, suggest something like a chapter in what Tomas Pynchon described as the networks of firearms in the “inexorably rising tide of World Anarchism” in Against the Day, a 2006 historical novel set in the turn of the century, whose global transit of firearms from Mexico to Buffalo to Europe mapped a premonition of the current globalization of multiplying networks of firearms.  One thinks back to that fictional seventeenth-century Dutch colonist, newly arrived in Mauritius with his arquebus, Frans Van Der Groov, who stalks the island compulsively in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, compulsively and systematically eliminating dodoes birds to extinction “for reasons he could not explain.”


Filed under big data, globalization, Google Maps, gun control, gun ownership, gun safety

Gun Ownership as a Form of Freedom?

The diminished intervals marking time between mass shootings make the above timeline hard to digest.  It maps an apparent onslaught of the apparently unpredictable nature of a succession of mass-shootings which have occurred with increased rapidity in the United States, each of which once seemed to violently punctuate public space, and set new thresholds for public violence, whose occurrence has come to know few bounds–even as few believe that the next mass-shooting would ever occur in the area in which they live.  The timeline is not spatial in orientation, but is a disturbing map of America difficult to  cognitively process and come to terms with–but cannot help but raise questions about ow to reconcile the increased individual access to firearms and Second Amendment rights.

It’s hard to process raises pressing questions of the ways in which our national landscape is increasingly defined by gun violence, dotted by once-memorable place-names of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, Aurora, Newtown, or, more recently, San Bernardino–each of which has come to destabilize the way that previous mass-killings once loomed so large in the present, and in our thoughts about gun control.  Although it makes one want to bore more deeply into the data, it registers a national landscape marked by gun violence with new urgency.   Even as contentious debates are staked about how individual access to guns defines the nation, the simple timeline poses complicated questions about a public arena mapped that seems increasingly mapped by mass shootings.  It describes the prominence of gun violence across a national landscape–even though it only lists but thirteen places by name.  If chronologies were once used to supplement to maps in the middle ages, to sort the settlement of the inhabited world, the shrinking distances between multiple mass shootings on the over-crowded chronology indeed seem to map a growing public arena of gun use that appear increasingly difficult to inhabit.

Dateline Mass Shootigns USA


Ten YearsMother Jones/Analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


The punctuation of time by mass shootings turns to a terrible continuum in recent years overpowers the viewer in ways that make that landscape difficult to process.  Rather than offer a way to mark time, the frequency of what were once treated as discrete  events is overwhelmed, as shootings in public spaces that left four dead have ceased to meaningfully mark time, and suggest a geography of shooting guns in public space.  From occurences at clearly marked intervals, the pace of mass shootings suggest a surreal information overload in their bunched crowding that challenges legibility, and even remembrance.  For even when distributed on a map, it’s hard to find any coherence in how the clustering of such senseless premeditated tragedies have relentless occurred.  Can one even map their social impact or human cost?

Few maps can register their deep costs than the oddly disembodied timeline.  As one tries to consider shooting, the pace of shootings across the United States is cognitively difficult to process.  The timeline challenges one to comprehend both the toll of the rash of deadly assaults on public space.  There is little consensus about “mass shootings”; the timeline charts shootings in public space that left four or more dead.  But it suggests how, at a time when gun-related violence has recently declined, the recurrence of mass shootings suggests a landscape we need to collectively confront–and to map against the pernicious diffusion of beliefs that gun ownership are a form of freedom guaranteed by Second Amendment rights–although the frantic pace of mass shootings, illustrating the tortured narratives of shooters, to be sure, but also the problems of examining distinct differences between mass shootings, mass murder, and mass killings in relation to the increased access to firearms.

While some would portray the awful repetition of these tragedies as the cost of liberties, the timeline tracks the truly terrible ease of widespread recourse rapid-fire firearms.  Indeed, the horror at the occurrence of mass shootings seems due not only to their horror, but their deep confusion of a militarized and civil space.  The dramatically unique scale of gun violence in the United States has led it to be increasingly accepted as a natural fact, to be sure, as many, including City Lab, have noted, leading Zara Matheson to create a brilliant visualization comparing urban gun violence in America to that of other countries:


homicide_metro_country (2)web

Zara Matheson/City Lab/Martin Prosperity Institute


The amazing scale of gun violence itself has encouraged the expansion of open carry laws and gun rights protests in America, that have resulted in a similar deep confusion between civil and militarized space.  But nothing evidences such a profound and deeply dangerous confusion as specifically or dramatically as mass shootings.  And as the profusion of arms in public space grows at a rapid pace, doesn’t the assertion of gun ownership as a right suggest a deep and problematic confusion of civil and militarized space in the deeply disquieting and increasingly public assertion of Second Amendment rights?


gettyimages-5011345242.jpgGun Activists Marching with AR-15s at UT-Austin/Getty Images


1. It’s not possible to fully comprehend the density of shootings in public places or their especially increased frequency during the past decade–and especially difficult to process their relentlessness across the timeline, which suggests we are in danger of losing count.  They suggest a dangerous landscape of public violence that doesn’t seem likely to change.  Traumatic shootings which once seemed watersheds of public violence, once viewed in aggregation, reveal a relentlessness impossible to process save as a changed state of events.  And while the government has not tracked the rise of mass shootings, or mapped the prevalence of guns in relation to deadly shootings,  on-line aggregations of mass shootings and tallying victims confirm a change in public space–closely tied to the ongoing  advocacy of gun sales by gun manufacturers who fund the NRA:  indeed, the laissez-faire attitude to gun sales are increasingly masqueraded in the United States as a form of liberty in ways that pose an increased danger to public health–that might be more aptly likened to a contagious disease.  Mappings of the rash of mass shootings by active shooters in the past three years embody violence in ways that resemble nothing so much as disease maps.


4d3b7e10-9a94-11e5-b169-65b948f9970d_3797bfb0-99f4-11e5-86c9-23dc4b373c60_mass-shooting-incidents-heatmapdata from Shooting Tracker

But the aggregation of mass shootings in the United States seems tragically tied to the flooding of markets with firearms and guns, not only causally, but in terms of the vociferous defense of individual rights to bear and carry arms in public space–as the recent exaggerated expansion of the Second Amendment defense of individual rights–long agitated for by the NRA–suggests.



Getty Images

In ways raw data speaks more than cartographical forms can embody.  But only by parsing the rise of such mass shootings from gun homicides and firearm use can we begin to understand the deep confusion and distortion mass shootings have made between militarized and public space, and address or process them by more than shock–or start examine reasons for the considerably greater fear of terrorism, despite the 10,000-fold magnitude between the number of gun deaths and deaths from terrorist attacks, and  the wildly disproportionate fatalities from mass shootings since 9/111 than home-grown terrorism.  Treating the San Bernardino mass shootings as terrorism is only not recognizing the prevalence of mass shootings in the American landscape, and makes it increasingly important to clarify the presuppositions of mapping mass shootings.

If the extreme gun violence of mass shootings are parsed since Sandy Hook, or since 9/11, or since the threat of terrorist violence on U.S. soil, the collective growth is striking.  Gun violence is perhaps not possible to measure abstractly, let alone to aggregate.  But the crowding of individual events in a chronology is difficult to process in a timeline that rather than keeping time almost undermine its legibility as a distribution–the very frequency with which mass shootings have come to occur offers pause for reflection.  In aggregation, the timeline is hard to get one’s mind around, as if it challenges the viewer.  In ways that almost undermines its value as a timeline, the clustering of dates when mass shootings occurred suggests the difficulty to process or clearly map their frequency:   public shootings or four victims or more increased in the aftermath of the terrible shooting of kindergarten children in Newtown, PA–guns killed 90,000 since, some 555 children.  Rather than constituting watersheds of public violence or tipping points, the Newton massacre and the shootings of Columbine, Aurora, and Virginia Tech suggest way stations of increased violence in an embodiment of collective violence.

The aggregated timeline poses questions as to whether we are watching a pattern of collective behavior in schools, a geography of anger, or an epidemic of public  health, and charts a widespread and growing confusion between civilian and military arenas in an era of globalized battlefields–in which the range of “perceived enemies” has expanded off of the map.  Aggregates of shootings of four or more dead or injured by guns suggest a similar cognitive overload of data of the dead or injured that we are similarly unable to process in any meaningful way:


shooting deaths:injuries aggregates

Total Gun Deaths of Four or More, based on data of ShootingTracker.com


Sized in relation to local population, a somewhat more legible distribution appears:


Mass Shootigns, Sized per 100,000.png

Washington Post


But distinguishing gang-related violence from other records on mass shootings a broad national problem of guns:


shootings gang:nont gang 2005-12


If we turn to maps to create coherence from the successive mass shootings that increasingly afflict the country, the timeline reminds us most disturbingly of the remove of such events from our own personal responsibility–their relation as traumas remains difficult to start to comprehend, let alone map meaningfully, since they seem so likely to recur and not removed in time.  The distribution of mass shootings suggest an undeniable underside, indeed, to the increased insistence on individual rights to carry guns in public space, despite the deep dangers that they continue to pose.  For the approximation of continuity in the multiplication of mass shootings approximate a sense of helplessness parallel to the terrifying 350 counted shootings of multiple victims over the past year–even if they are not all mass shootings by any definition.

The intense anger and helplessness behind shooting of multiple unknown victims suggests a striking recourse to guns, however, which currently seems bound to increase with the continued easy availability of firearms.  Despite the danger of over-aggregation in light of San Bernardino and Columbia shooting and their mourning, which has almost become its own internet meme, parallel to the sudden rise of training exercises to respond to them, suggest a dangerous desperation to comprehend the scope of gun violence in America by affirming the personal possession of guns–sessions that include the very same sinister design of a public poster devised for a wide morale-boosting campaign by Britain’s Ministry of Information, the government agency charged to design morale-boosting posters during World War II.  The emblem, adopted to suggest the difficulty sustaining attacks and civil space in mass shootings, almost mirror the confusion of civil and militarized space in such shootings.  Its inclusion recalls a tendency to discourses on mass shootings to migrate to terrains of   preparation, as much as prevention:  if the original posters were printed in 2.5 million copies, they were largely “held in reserve, intended for use only in times of crisis, or invasion”–and only later rediscovered by a Northumberland used bookstore.


Mass Shooting Trainings


No matter how much we seek to map their incidence, to create some sort of clarity in danger or fear we might better grasp, the bunching of mass shootings–killings where a single shooter open fires ammunition to leave four dead–suggests a shattering of public peace, and civil space.  While the rise of mass shootings are called a creation of the news cycle, although their incidence have overwhelmed the airwaves– And now we turn to this. Here we go. Again.”, the frequency with which incidence of public mass shootings in America have multiplied with the relentlessness of streaming banner news headlines on cable television suggests a violation of human rights. The increasing pace with which shootings of unknown victims occurred in public space seems impossible to clearly compartmentalize, or continue to report, as their frequency over the past two years enters a terrifying continuity particularly difficult to objectify since they assault humanity.  Although these shootings constitute but a small share of gun violence, the deeply troubling landscape of mass shootings troublingly parallels increasingly strident assertions defense of firearm possession as a right not able to be legally regulated.


2.  Even removed from a coherent geographical form, the sequence of isolated place-names of shooting sites  challenge one to confront the landscape of mass shootings in the United States in disquieting ways. The expansion of such shootings illuminate a shifting landscape of guns in public life–even as fewer than a twentieth of Americans regard gun control laws as a problem confronting Americans, and Congress only recently recognized “mass killings” in 2013 as demanding attention from the Attorney General.  Even in the light of rejecting restrictions on gun laws or an assault weapons ban, the late identification of such premeditated if unpredicted shootings of unknown victims reveal an increasing accumulation of fatalities, not suggested in the timeline, that .  The picture of mass shootings since 1982 indeed suggest a terrifyingly broad distribution across the United States and suggests a failure to responsibly manage firearms in public space.


since 1982

ABC News/Mother Jones

The increasing occurrence of mass shootings challenges viewers to join several apparently incidents whose totality difficult to cognitively process, moving events seared in our personal memories as if they watersheds in a quick succession whose near-continuum strains understanding as a status quo, and raises questions about how to find meaning in their rapid onslaught.




The crowding of the chronology of mass shootings links dramas that unfolded in different parts of the country in a metaphor of the difficulty to grasp the rate of mass shootings in public spaces:   dots designating individual events are difficult to process or parse. Rather than seem individual aberrations, the unpredictable arrival of such mass shootings, grouped collectively, ask us to find coherence in the repetition of mass shootings across America, and to ask why the growing frequency of such shootings is still doubted as specific to our political culture, and relentlessly called into question, rather than addressed, even as tallies of gun deaths have broadly dropped by 30 percent from the early 1990s:  the recent surge of mass shootings are not only due to increased media attention to their senseless randomness, but as a threat to human rights.

The reopening of debates about how gun control laws could stop or hinder the geography of gun deaths or scrutiny of shifting gun laws and their effectiveness suggest the lack of clear voice about guns.  The variation among regulations about carrying guns in public–and transporting firearms–are even cast by advocates of the individual rights to firearm possession as a jumble of intrusive edicts on transporting loaded guns, ammunition, and storing such weapons by local attorney generals, aircraft carriers, TSA officials, and, yes, national parks and wildlife refuges, as so many “regulatory schemes” curtailing the allegedly protected freedom to own and carry guns.


NRA gun laws?NRA-Institute for Legislative Action


Rather than consider mass shootings in terms of criminality or individual deviance, the prevalence of mass shootings across America demand to be recognized as a register of the unregulated liberties to carry guns in public space.  The timeline in the header to this post is disorienting in how it aggregates such shootings, and poses multiple much-debated questions about understanding their rapid pace over time.  Yet the picture of giving coherence to the range of mass shootings across the land is in a sense the reflection of the paranoia of gun protection.  Ordering the relative frequency of mass shootings by lone gunmen is itself a challenge to map–and get one’s mind around–because it lacks without any apparent clarity in its growing spread.  We often turn to maps to try to find some coherence, but find ourselves similarly frustrated by attempts to find coherence in the growing landscape of mass shootings and not offense.  For the pace of mass shootings, once so terrifying in their individuality, has accelerated both since Columbine and since Sandy Hook to make it difficult to not view within a broad change in the use of guns in public settings, conflating militaristic violence and public life, in ways that demand mapping if not to the increased availability of guns, to the ways mass murders might be measured.

The timeline renders it impossible to regard what were once seen as possible turning or tipping points in public violence outside of a context of their collective increase.  However much some pundits repeat the conclusions of criminologists about the constant levels of gun violence in America–distorting the distribution of their frequency by including family violence and gang-related fights that constitute a large share of firearm homicides–the increased occurrence of mass shootings on unknown victims reveal disturbing conflations of guns and public space.  Even to measure gun violence alone deeply distorts the unique problem of mass shootings, as they are premised on lumping such public shootings with a broad epidemic of gun violence, rather than confronting and visualizing the growing conviction of the legitimacy of firing firearms randomly into crowds without restraint.



James Allen Fox


Although mass shootings in public spaces are by nature unpredictable, the aggregation of mass shootings offers a way to analyze and recognize the problems of But although the violent level of gun shootings in America have grown, as violence cannot be universally quantified, mass shootings prove difficult to classify or define with uniformity.  For mass shootings reveal a unique sort of violence in public.  Even when not counting the shootings of family members–the majority of group homicides from firearms, with one in four victims being close family members and over half family members or intimate partner–the increase of public “mass” shootings aimed at unknown victims suggest a confusion of militarized and civil space–and a irresponsible intrusion of firearms into public life, all too eerily mirrored in the attempted seizure of public lands.

The increased anonymity of mass society finds an eery underside in the relentless expansion of mass shootings at unknown human targets in civic space, as if they suggest the fragility of civil society.  The numbers shot or killed by high-capacity magazines have defined and will define the country by their very frequency of mass shootings occur in the United States–however vociferously contested is the claim President Obama’s claim that “this just doesn’t happen elsewhere”, the expansion of such shootings reflects an increased absence of regulation of firearms.   While it’s not entirely true that only “high capacity magazines put the ‘mass’ in mass shootings”, given the range of gun violence, the peculiarity of gun violence in America lies in the frequency of adopting firearms to wound or murder unknown victims, and the need to better chart the level of violence on   For the anonymity of gun violence in America reflects the far greater access to guns in the country, and a broader presence of guns in public spaces of assembly.  The expansion of mass shootings illuminate the shifting landscape of gun violence–even as fewer than a twentieth of Americans regard gun control laws as a problem confronting Americans, and Congress took until 2013 to recognize the “mass killings” as demanding attention from the Attorney General, after it rejected to enact restrictions on gun laws or extend an assault weapons ban.


since columbine

Mother Jones/Analysis by Harvard School of Public Health




The recent proliferation of such mass shootings, rather than raise thresholds for processing public violence, raise questions about reasons for increased recourse to guns, as well as about the perpetrators of crimes.  For the striking relentlessness of the multiplication of premeditated crime in public space is truly difficult to comprehend as they approach a deeply disquieting continuity.   The term “mass shootings”–only slightly removed form “mass-killings” or “mass murder” that evoke wartime–have no place in liberal society as bizarre conflations of military-style violence, so disturbingly are they removed from a society of laws.  Even if exceedingly rare in comparison to gun-related deaths, mass killings by guns have however multiplied in three-fold fashion over the past three years to almost cease to be able to be seen as discrete events as they were once considered to be, as shootings in public spaces by “active shooters” have skyrocketed, as the times between their occurrence declined sharply.

The rise of such shootings has no clear precedent.  Although such killings have a clear history and precedent, at times dated as far back as 1891 or even to 1984, the term “mass shooting” first gained currency around 2012, in reaction to the expansion of public shootings, and the classification introduced by the FBI was soon adopted by CNN, who expanded the bar for fatalities in a mass shooting to four, but also excluded events where the victims were related.  Only after that did the U.S. Congress in 2013 officially qualify “mass shootings” as single incidents leaving three dead in the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act, taking responsibility to define the term as part of America–even while refusing to maintain a public registry of such shootings, or adopt this as the sole definition.  The relative frequency of their occurrence suggests a deep confusion between civilian and military space that demands to be unraveled, even if the lack of a public registry of such public shootings may soon change, as well as the introduction of greater checks on the purchase of guns.  But there is an abdication of responsibility has led to an unchecked expansion of the defense of individual rights of gun ownership–and a dislodging of attention from shootings to the danger of compromising gun rights.

The sense of virtual continuity that approaches in the above timelines are so disordered that it is tempting to find coherence for these unpredictable events in a map.  But the collective mapping of such extreme violence is truly difficult to comprehend as they approach a deeply disquieting continuity.  Individual stories of mass shootings such as the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, PA cannot help but bring tears to one’s eyes, as to President Obama’s, as they will continue to do.  But the intense the pace of shooting multiple victims–evident in the shrinking intervals between black circles that mark mass shootings–represents a terrible sort of information overload.  For it sketches a landscape of mass shootings we’ve been slow to confront, and evokes a sense of powerlessness to interrupt the staccato of their onslaught.  Although shootings has, incredibly, relentlessly accelerated since the Newtown, PA attacks, the same event provoked increased attention to mapping and quantifying  mass shootings, in an attempt to understand that increased frequency.  In spite of the absence of national databases on mass shootings, the rise of crowd-sourced or open-sourced maps since then provide a better dataset of their occurrence–forcing us to confront the increased numbers of people shot or killed by high-capacity magazines, the older demographic of their perpetrators, almost exclusively male, and the greater share children such mass shootings killed, to force us to better examine their occurrence outside the landscape of mourning which has also recurred with increased frequency.

We mine data in hopes to try to impose coherence on the terrifying frequency with which public “mass shootings” doubled after 2007, and tripled by 2011.  But such documentation fails to process the landscape of increased recourse to automatic guns.  The succession of individual mass shootings fail tell a satisfying narrative about their increasing occurrence.  For the collective aggregation of such apparently random acts of violence, the timeline of mass shootings grouped with apparent objectivity, embodies a story that lacks apparent spatial coherence.  Although we use maps to process their relation to one another, and to gain a better picture of national violencethe proliferation of public violence, the expansion of mass shootings maps a story that eerily parallels the increased availability of guns and assertion of an individual “right” to firearms irrespective of individual rights or public safety.

Similarly, the government has focussed on mass shootings though an optic of criminal investigation, rather than through their victims.  Although the government, in an abdication of public responsibility, has resisted tabulating the occurrence of such crimes, and only defined “mass killings”in 2013 as a subject worthy of investigation by the Attorney General, collective tabulation often rested in amassing local police records of ‘active shooter incidents’ as problems of law enforcement, rather than within a landscape of gun violence lasting two to five minutes.  The problems of mapping where such premeditated crimes continue to inflict violent injury or death reflects increased access to firearms, parallel to the decrease in urban gun violence.  But their senselessness remains difficult to commemorate or get one’s mind around or even to individually mourn.



Mark Wilson/Getty Images


3.  The tabulation of such terrible incidents of gun violence where a single shooter left four or more dead from a single shooter–a standard defined in FBI data but not adopted universally–have consistently occurred with increased frequency over the past twenty-five years.  The definition introduced by the FBI and taken up by CNN may however, it is been widely noted, minimize the scale of these shootings and mask the lack of clear consensus of what constitutes mass shootings–from whether the category reflects fatalities, wounded, or indeed the weapon used.   The refusal to tally mass killings, even if they comprise only 1% of all murders, is inadequate to visualize events that shouldn’t even be happening.  The gun violence enabled by high-capacity magazines that create a potential of shooting multiple victims have led to a spate of mass shootings perpetrated almost entirely (94% of suspects are male) by white men, mostly between 20 and 45 years old, have alarmingly accelerated since 2005.  The difficulty in parsing the changing landscape rests in defining “mass shooting,” quantifying gun violence by its victims, and of understanding the rapid sequence of such truly terrible premeditated crimes.

The multiplication of mass shootings have a fairly uniform spatial distribution, but a geography of anger that invites increasingly military-style assaults on public space.  For if they are not clearly tied to globalism, or economic change, the rise of mass shootings in America are all too tellingly linked to a persistent confusion of militarized actions and public space, aptly characterized by Arjun Appadurai as a geography of anger in an age of globalization.  Interrogating what invites such a confusion of public and militarized space might generate a clearer geography of mass shootings, lest they seem only random or chaotic scatterplot.


Timeline BetweenMother Jones; data analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


In part, the overcrowded timeline remains difficult to process adequately because of the very density with which marks that note individual events of gun violence overlap with one another, effacing their own legibility, and the difficulty of giving meaning to violent outbursts in a clear context.  The difficulty to discern the individuality among “mass shootings” makes it hard to process the meaning of their frequent repetition.  In part, the abdication of definitional categories by the government, and failure of Congress to define “mass shootings” until after the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut shooting opened debate about the proliferation of such violent events, suggest an abdication of responsibility–the government has not only left the media without a clear definition to track their occurrence; we have failed to control the rash of shootings in public space.  Although the Newtown shootings led to a number of attempts to aggregate mass shootings–from the Stanford Mass Shootings of America to Shooting Tracker–that placed renewed responsibility and focus on gun violence, and its victims, the absence of focussing on the specific gun violence of mass shootings and how to tabulate its violence outside of a language of criminality has provided an unclear image of its proliferation or its expanse.  President Obama, not only acting as Consoler-in-Chief, increasingly adopted the term “mass shootings” in public statements during 2015.  We cannot afford to let the disarming pattern of their recurrence remain so very difficult to wrap one’s head around.

And so we turn to maps to try to impose some purchase or coherence on the rage of gun violence, which seems to stand between individual actions and some macabre  sort of collective agency.  Only ten public shootings in the timeline are identified by place  in the timeline above.  But the landscape of shootings reveals a violent interruption of public space, difficult to explain or comprehend–both in terms of the increased frequency of mass shootings since events like the Columbine shootings, or the Newtown Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, just three years ago, or the subsequent multiplication of mass shootings whose frequency almost seems not to permit time for processing the memory of the dead.   Even in an age of growing global violence, because it is so hard to get one’s mind around a landscape where public mass shootings have continued to multiply across the land, and their danger goes unaddressed.  The renewed popularity of trainings to survive mass shootings continues to affirm the individual right to possessing firearms as a solution to contain violence–rather than recognize the pathology of gun violence that confuses military-style shootings and public space.

Yet the frequency of the recurrence of mass shootings is difficult to process in part because of the lack of a clear database for either the crimes and weapons with which they were perpetrated–resulting in a deeply troubling longstanding  blindspot in processing the landscape of recourse to guns.  The troubling reluctance to tally mass shootings–or to associate them with guns–has been clouded by a reluctance to identify the violence particular to gun crimes.  Yet  increased numbers of crowd-sourced or vetted counts of mass shootings illustrate a landscape of a terrifying proliferation of violence difficult to get one’s head around, in which the late 1990s constituted something like a watershed, but by the last ten years proliferated in increasingly troubling ways, in a geography of anger that a time-lapse visualization reveals, compressing monthly tallies over fifty years that increasingly stained the nation by blotches of bright red.


Tristan Bridges

This count is an underestimation that does not include mass-shootings involving family members, which amount to a quarter of the victims of mass-shootings, and the majority of such shootings are family-related.  Interrogating what invites such a confusion of public and militarized space might generate a clearer geography of mass shootings, in Appadurai’s terms, might however gain better purchase on their occurrence and indeed the fear of further mass shootings in America.

The proliferation of such premeditated public gun violence across the nation was enacted with complete lack of empathy and arrogant privilege.  Although the recurrence of mass murders in America may have created changing thresholds of public gun violence in the country, particularly since the Columbine massacre in 1999.  When the sociologist Ralph Larkin suggested the emergence of a “cultural script”–a model for shootings inspired by the violence of earlier killers–the suggestion paralleled vigorous public debates as to the ethics of continued identification of perpetrators on television news and the coverage of their manifestos.  But the ethics of tallying the geography of this spate of mass shootings and the landscape it presents is not only as important for the image of the nation that it presents, but for the difficulty of finding any coherence in episodes of public gun violence, at one time rare, but now extending from sites of public congregation from movie theaters to schools to public clinics to on-air news shows.

The problem of tallying mass shootings, after all, is a problem of confronting the extent of gun violence in the country by visualizing the ways that mass shootings, if a small percentage of gun-related deaths, compromise public safety in unacceptable ways with increasing frequency.  So much is revealed in the increased prominence of  the number of mass shootings staged in schools since Newtown alone–


Mapping mass Shootings in Schools.png

School Shootings in the United States since 2013/Every town Research


or the predominance of children among victims of mass shootings–


one in three is a child.png

Everytown Research


Mass shootings are increasingly publicly staged as a perverse taking of justice into one’s own hands, not only as increasing guns have entered circulation, but as the diffusion of firearms equipped with high-capacity magazines has changed the landscape of gun violence.  Despite a partial slowing of their occurrence after passage of the Assault Weapons Ban, in place until 2004, most public shootings occurred with legally purchased guns–80%.  If many perpetrators betrayed signs of mental health problems,this did not obstruct the legal purchase of guns with high-capacity magazines whose rapid-fire capacities that the black dots marking shrinking intervals almost emulates in its chronology of violent crime, whose staccato approached near continuity at several times ov re the past ten years.  If such violence parallels a growing global violence, the painful punctuation of time with public mass shootings, tabulated as a single gunman leaving at least four dead, suggest more than a cultural script, but a geography of extreme rage it is important to try to confront.


Timeline BetweenMother Jones; data analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


The increasingly crowded chronology reveal an increase in episodes of public gun violence with multiple victims, whose occurrences become difficult to individuate form one another their repetition is so dense.  Yet a clear consequence of such mass shootings is in the geography of fear:  on the heals of individual massshootings, surges in the sales of firearms have arose–recent sales have increased across Southern California in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, in the manner that gun-dealers were quick to report increased requests for weapons after earlier mass shootings as Sandy Hook to two million guns a month.  And once more, firearm purchases have surged.


4.  If we are apt to interpret the increased spate of shootings as a sort of crowd psychology of negative role models, the tacit dialectic between massshootings and gun sales demands mapping as an intersection of a spatial imaginary rooted in the defense of rights to possess firearms and the expansion of further firearm sales–a landscape not of increased gun ownership, but of an expansion of the misunderstood “right” to bear arms.  We are more ready to accept workshops for training in behavior during mass shootings, as if to accept them as a new normal, than to enact laws designed to staunch the sales and circulation of firearms.

For the expansion of mass shootings in America has grown in the face of a lack of official government counting of their occurrence, and a blind spot and self-imposed reluctance to monitor or disturb the alleged “right” to bear arms.  Although there is unclear evidence that the ban on assault weapons limited the growth of gun violence or murders before it expired in 2004, despite reported reduction of guns in circulation at shows and gun sales, the promise and hope to reinstate the plan led to a defense of gun rights consolidated in 2008 by the Roberts court.  The Court’s somewhat surprising defense of gun possession as a personal right paved to an increase in circulation of guns in America that mushroomed first to one per citizen, and approximately 310,000,000 million firearms as of 2012–114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns–or more than the number of Americans.  At the same time, the expansion of AR-15’s in American hands beyond 3,750,000 by late 2012–with sixteen million new guns circulating in America by 2013, as detailed in the tenth (and almost self-standing) section of this post.   Industry analysts of gun and ammunition manufacturers–who donate part of their profits to the NRA, mean that the panic-buying after each mass shooting regularly accelerated and “went vertical,” driving new monies to the NRA.

The full-throated defense of gun-ownership as a right, long asserted by many pro-gun groups, was endorsed that parallel the expansion of a landscape of illegal gun shootings and the multiplication of mass-shootings over 2015–in what President Obama recognized as “a pattern . . .  of mass shooting in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”  Rather than the chronology of mass shootings only reflect an inexorable rise of anger or a disembodied landscape of emulation of bad role models, this post suggests the need to embody that landscape in the dramatically increased right to protect individual ownership of guns. that provide a background for the four-fold expansion, by one count, of mass shootings in America from 2008 to 2014:  the expansion of gun sales triggered by Obama’s 2008 election encouraged shops to restock firearms anticipating Obama’s re-election, which indeed spiked sharply after Newtown, when a surge in the circulation of firearms occurred which demands to be mapped.


Millinos of GunsEconomist


Have the costs of such a resurgence of guns in America already born cots? The expansion of such newly identified events as “mass shootings” suggest a failure to map a landscape of gun violence.  The increasing frequency of such murders renders it almost impossible  individuate these terrifyingly militaristic event as discrete; their aggregation overwhelms its own very symbology, as if echoing the deep difficulty to interpret their troubled narratives with any coherence.  The frequency of public mass shootings in America offers a mirror particularly difficult to confront.  We search of more coherent answers in maps–but are frustrated at the meaning of the apparent proliferation of mass shootings since Sandy Hook attacks directed public attention to attempts to contain future gun violence while respecting Second Amendment rights–


Mass Shootings Since Sandy HookMass Shooting Tracker


–and inspired the public record-keeping that had long lacked to provide a clearer image of the expanse of gun violence across the country that has led President Obama to act with a “sense of urgency” to enact gun control measures in ways consistent with Second Amendment rights–even as his opponents return to possible impeding of Second Amendment liberties as a nefarious design needing to be met by their active protection.


4.  Have we have allowed a clear popular distortion of individual rights to possess guns that obscure the multiplication of mass shootings, and landscape of gun violence, distorting the rights of gun ownership as a constitutional liberty, leading to a refusal to monitor or control access to assault rifles or handguns?  By failing to register the relation of rapid-fire guns to crimes, curtailing background checks, and invalidating any bans on the restriction or ownership of handguns, the founders’ call for a “well regulated [state] Militia” was re-interpreted as an individual prerogative to have unrestricted access to firearms, irrespective of the growing threat to public safety.


Brady Campaing to Prevetn Gun Violence

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence


The timeline at the header to this post challenges us to map memories of individual shootings in schools, movie theaters, public buildings, or auditoriums in an abstract form–and process the reasons for their collective acceleration over time.  Each episode of violence suggests less a fixed ‘place’, of course,  than the extent to which extreme gun-violence intersects with the nation; the collective list challenges viewers to process the collective impact of a new landscape of gun violence in public space, almost 80% of which involved legally-purchased guns with high-capacity magazines, and to explain the reasons for the distribution of an undeniable epidemic of public shootings in civic space.  Much as the extension of railroad lines earlier placed locations “on the map” which were earlier unknown, the occurrence of mass shootings–by no means consistently defined in the United States, and based on an old FBI classification since abandoned–puts a town at the intersection between a near-epidemic of violence and civil space.

The sites where mass shootings occurred have entered public memory, even if no clear consensus has emerged on the notion of mass shootings.  Although its value for registering gun violence in America has been questioned, the terrifying prominence of the increase in such public performances of violence has led to increased interrogations of what has allowed (or facilitated) such explosive violence that have been relentless over the last few years.  While we have watched a procession of deer-in-the-headlights photos of perpetrators or examined the eyes of Facebook portraits for clues, the aggregate acts of such violent aggression can’t be seen as an aberration.  The overlap between public instances of gun violence that left four dead is difficult to process both as a loss of individual lives, and epidemic of violence for which no clear end seems in sight:  the telling contraction between shootings in which four or more were killed have come to overlap with one another to make them illegible and impossible to process as a whole–the crowded timeline of violent outbursts overwhelms in ways difficult to process or understand, in part because it removes the increase of mass shootings from a broader context of refuting local restrictions on the possession of guns in 2008 and 2010, as the widespread relcutance to revisit the lax regulation of gun ownership encouraged a belief in the “right” to own guns.


Timeline BetweenMother Jones; data analysis by Harvard School of Public Health


Tabulated by mass shootings/month, a terrifyingly clustered repetition–if less clearly as a visual metaphor for the difficulty to grasp the frequency of public shootings’ occurrence–returns.  There has never been a break for more than three months in a public shooting that left four dead over six years–breaks that only occurred two times.  Although the shootings cluster, and little coherent pattern exists among the rampages,



Everytown Research

their occurrence raises questions about the increasing intersection of gun violence and public life.  Even though “mass shootings” comprise quite a slim percentage of gun violence, to be sure–


Page2-TotalUSFirearmHomicides1Everytown Research


–the persistence of mass shootings with terrifying regularity raise inevitable questions about their future role in the country’s public space, and hint at a future of violence in places where violence previously had little place.  Is there something like a tipping point about the diffusion of mass shootings in America, or are we powerless before their spread?

Although mass media has returned to the dramatic setting of public mass shootings as tragic losses of life, we fail to process them as fragments of a national storyline, since their narrative coherence is poorly understood–what coherence can be imposed or read in their distribution remains unclear.  The unpredictable sequence of such heinous crimes staged by individual shooters have only come to be collectively defined, and given coherence by being mapped in ways other than numbers of killed.  Though the mass shooting was not included in the FBI’s Crime Records Reports, the mass shooting has come to resonate with a topography of fear in an age of the perceived rise of terror; if questions have been raised about whether mass media reporting may have increased copycat crimes, the crowded landscape of sites of public gun violence paints a frightening image of America, at the nexus of law enforcement and legal rights of gun ownership, but creates a landscape of its own.

The resonance with which each place-name appears on the crowded timeline suggests the growing difficulty to process the seventy three of such identified events over the past thirty years, and rapidity with which have arrived in sharply decreasing intervals; as much as a landscape of increased violence across the nation, the mass shooting has become a way of marking time of increased fear–whose crowding as a collective chronology above, reprinted from Mother Jones, based on three decades of data and research from the Harvard School of Public Health on shootings in public space, suggests a random reputation of lives lost.  We turn to maps to try to process them.  But  the increased frequency of mass shootings intersects with public space in these data visualizations, made and remade in attempts to understand whatever coherence they might have or invest coherence in their occurrence fails to reveal clear meanings–even against our intensely fractured political climate.  And after each shooting since Sandy Hook, gun retailers celebrated a “real surge” in sales that was widely championed by gun manufacturers.

The distribution of mass shootings blankets America whether measured by their occurrence or the number killed by such public violence, in ways that define the country in curious ways but they hold a mirror to the country we do not like to recognize.


Stanford Mass Shooting Archive/Open Street Map/CartoDB


5.  Even the recognition of the phenomenon has been deemed too contentious to adopt, we use crowd-sourced web-based tabulations and open-source aggregations from non-profits like Shooting Tracker or Gun Violence Archive to track their occurrence and geographic distribution in the country.  Both websites have tabulated their incidence less with reference to a “active shooter” who is “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people” in public space determined by the FBI to describe “mass murders,” as if to hesitated to link them to a weapon of choice.  The tally of mass shootings has been only recently construed less in terms of the incidence of deaths–as tabulated by news agencies as CNN or the FBI–but includes those injured, rather than only those killed.  The timeline however exclusively marks public shootings that left four or more dead, excluding the gunman.  But multiple different definitions about what constitutes a mass killing can however lead any tally to vary and arrive at radically different results; the ongoing lack of consensus in the term as an analytic tool makes it difficult to agree on how this data, and make us depend on non-profits for accurate counts beyond that of news agencies.  (Does a ‘mass shooting’ reflect the number shot in quick sequence (as it does for Shooting Tracker), four or more killed, or only multiple shootings?  Should the category exclude robberies, gang-related violence or domestic violence?)

The results can be so radically different to suggest radically different landscapes of public violence, and rely on different triangulations between perpetrator, victims, and gun, which reflect  contentious debates about relations of gun control and such shootings.  But all try to visualize the undeniably growing intersection between such apparently random outbreaks of gun violence and public space, to try to create meaning from such tragic and not-so-sporadic outbreaks of public violence.  The significant difficulty of cognitively processing the growing frequency of public mass shootings occurring at one time and site–let’s say only killings of four or more unrelated individuals at one site–so overwhelms as an information overload alone, to demand careful consideration.  In part, the events seem too traumatic, most still seared in our personal memories, to be able to be distanced with clarity.  Even when stripped of geographic location, each place-name invites us to place our personal recollections of what seemed altering shootings in a collective context that lacks clear coherence.

Although the timeline in the header is not at all an actual map, per se, each place-name triggers indelible if temporary ruptures of civil society, asking us to try to abstract them as a coherent whole; rather than seem discreet moments, they assume a collective resonance that’s terribly challenging to process–the relation between the distribution of mass shootings to our sense of the space civil society is pressing, but quite difficult to define, even as mass shootings have undeniably multiplied to 375 over the last year, including four or more killed or wounded, in a combination of imitation and increasing violence over a year which at its close was dubbed “year of the mass shootings.”  And only a small number of such events had there been concern about the mental health of their perpetrators expressed to medical practitioners, school officials, or legal authorities–and if concerns were expressed about just over one tenth of perpetrators, fewer than 1% were actually legally barred from buying guns.


Dark USA of mass shootingsKQED


The quick succession of mass shootings in the timeline of course forces us to ask their relation to one another, and expresses the cognitive challenges of getting one’s mind around them–and questions whether a map is even the best medium to track the spate of violence of mass shootings, even as it makes us turn to a map to locate them in space.  The difficulties of visualizing mass shootings lies only in part in the limits of reporting or classifying outbreaks of gun violence occurring at a single site as “mass shootings” by fatalities versus the number of wounded or shot–as if to count as an event that is newsworthy, an individual must die–but in making sense or coherence of the rash of these explosions of violent gunfire across the land.  The chronology lists mass shootings that left four dead but also evokes the very extent to which this past year’s onslaught of mass shootings in ways cognitively challenging to grasp, as their ever shrinking temporal separation approach near-continuity.  If each dot indicates a shooting without reference to space, their accumulated density maps a geography of anger.  For much as the place-names clustered with such density on the timeline, they are cumulatively  less and less easy to grasp as singular events:   mass shootings punctuated the last two decades with an intensity difficult to process such occurrences better–making one turn to a map to endow coherence to the unpredictable outbreaks of indiscriminate shootings across the country with little end in sight.

The aggregation of public gun violence suggest not only a geography of fear–and an undeniable overbooking of anger–but reveal a particularly insidious misinterpretation of gun ownership as a right in legal discourse, as much as the tally of mass shootings is filtered through debates on gun control.  The disembodied dots that dizzyingly crowd the timeline mimic the rapid-fire of bullets delivered by assault weapons’ replaceable magazines.  Despite continued unresolved debates in political discourse about how to gloss the spread of mass shootings in a country where it is so easy to procure guns, the contested interpretation of the map may betray a deep reluctance to confront their pervasive occurrence, and ask what sort of story their increased incidence, perpetrated almost entirely by young, white men–94% of suspects are male–suggests.

For the spread of mass shootings as a category eerily parallels a crisis, suggested by Dorothy Samuels, in American legal discourse as to the right of individuals to “bear arms” as a right without government oversight.  While many perpetrators, to be sure, displayed signs of significant mental health problems, the multiplication of mass shootings has been facilitated by legal sanctioning of individual  “rights” to own guns since 2008.  The defense of such “rights” not only actually encouraged the proliferation of millions of guns in the United States, but generated a political discourse, long planned by the NRA, about gun ownership that made reinstatement of either research on gun violence or curtailing of gun sales anathema.

Even without focusing  on perpetrators and their weapons, the landscape of gun violence poses questions as to what the aggregation of “mass shootings” reveals.  For even when excluding shootings that result from domestic violence in the home–perhaps unconscionably, given that a quarter of victims of multiple murders are family members and the majority of group-killings stem from family violence– the distribution of the data is terrifying as a rewriting of the use of guns in public space.  We are used to watching zones of war in television films, video games, and movies, but such mass shootings of four or more are difficult to process because they have occurred in spaces of public life:  health centers, schools, auditoria, film theaters, medical clinics, public buildings, or even the television news–as if to openly attack sites of public assembly.


since 1982

ABC News/Mother Jones


News stories about mass shootings have remained prominent since 2011, ranking in the top five stories in repeated years, lending familiarity to the term before it was defined by Congress in January, 2013 lowered the threshold for identifying “mass shootings” to three victims.  Data visualizations that “map” the accumulation and relative density of mass shootings present a landscape that we are just starting to learn to measure.  Although”mass killings” were first defined by the FBI, the adoption of “mass shootings” by news agencies as CNN or ABC left unclear consensus in how they are counted or conceived.   Indeed, while deeply disturbing, the ethics of a CartoDB heat map, which blur shootings to obscure individuality, are unclear, if terrifying; their distribution here approximates a disease map, but one particularly challenging to process–as if a miasma removed from the nation.


Carto DB Heat Map mass shootings 2015


–and aggregates data to suggest their wide distribution in populated areas, without any meaningful clarity.  The rise of such public displays of mass violence, if constituting only less than 1% of all gun violence, can’t help but suggest a deep instability within the nation–irrespective of place.   The aggregation of mass killings raises questions about attributing mass killings to a failure of mental health providers or shifting thresholds of violence of mass behavior–and, indeed, the thresholds that the country is able to process.  But the distributions with which mass shootings have occurred in America increasingly seem to define questions of the possible intersections between the site of the mass shooting and public life that are barely touching, but always in danger of overlapping.


6.  The national timeline presents an image of the nation hard to ignore, as if a creepy causal network of mass behavior.  The difficulty in mapping such violent outbreaks seems due to the reminder that they offer of how difficult mass shootings are to prevent, and how ubiquitous they have become, as revealed in this map tallying victims of mass shootings over the past year alone, but whose legibility is also obscured by the failure to count wounded and fatalities of four or more to tally the multiplication of mass-shootings over the past year of 2015–“a pattern . . .  of mass shooting in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”


Mass Shootings 2015PBS Newshour/Shooting Tracker


or sized by shootings with three or more fatalities–


2015, three or more



The year was so grim, and so tragic, in the series of shootings that we are still trying to get our minds around and to process, as shootings  occurred almost daily over 2015, that we may be near a tipping point in processing their immensity.

A chronologically collapsed aggregation of the wounded and dead in mass shootings that occurred since the Newtown shootings of 2012 make it impossible not to acknowledge their prevalence across America–in ways not limited to a tally of four dead, but that includes all dead or wounded:


Mass Shootings Since Sandy HookMass Shooting Tracker


The profusion of such violent events with guns contrasts to the twenty-eight states which had not seen a mass shooting incidents from 1984 to 2012–a number that in 2015 shrank to but five, making this earlier landscape look far removed from the nation’s current state:




Citizens Crime Commission, “Mass Shooting Incidents 1984-2012”


The pronounced expansion of mass shootings across both space and time suggests a boiling over of rage across America that such aggregations only force us to start to process.  While such killing sprees were initially termed “rampages” or “mass murders”, the increased currency of the very term “mass shootings”–only slightly removed form “mass-killings” (preferred by USA TODAY, who include killings of family members) or “mass murder” (which cannot help but evoke wartime settings)–suggests a disquieting difficulty to place such conflation of military-style violence and public space in a liberal society– and the troubling sense that this is approaching a new normal.  Even though the polarized nature of political discourse about gun control make it increasingly difficult to resolve.


7.  There at first seems little coherence offered in such maps, and a powerlessness that any action might soon slow their future occurrence–the maps overwhelm one with a feeling of impotence, as if “this was a terrible tragedy but somethings these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them”.  Rather than only create an image of a blood-splattered segment of a continental mass, or a record of psychic disturbances or mass behavior, the images might suggest the spaces that have been opened for mass shootings across the United States which increasingly pose undeniable challenges to human rights.  The shootings are deeply misunderstood as individual cases of psychic disturbance, even if they demand to be understood more clearly as a crisis of public health.

Individual attachment to guns may, insidiously, enable this rash of violent subtractions of self from a social compact.  For the challenge to visualize such violent shootings in public space collectively–and the deep threat and instabilities mass shootings continue to pose–resonate not because they are a large proportion of homicides (fewer than 1%) or gun violence (fewer than 5%), but because of the deep shock they pose to civil society.  Even if the attention to the number of mass killings may distract attention from the real danger of guns, including “slightly modified combat rifles” enough to be “red herrings” in the debate on gun control.  USA Today stokes fears by reporting that mass killings in fact “happen far more often [my italics] than the government reports,” even if shootings in public spaces account for about one-sixth of mass shootings, the events are so disturbing because they blur the boundaries between military action and public space too common in today’s world.  The relation between the space of mass shootings and the inhabited world is in a sense the subject of all maps of mass shootings.  There has been a  dizzying crescendo of shooting sprees in the over the twenty years since defunding of the CDC’s study of gun violence in America in 1996, believed to “advocate or or promote gun control” or defamed of doing so,  and the silencing of research on gun violence.  Since the decision to  direct the 2.6 million that the CDC  invested in studying gun violence to the less-contentious research in traumatic brain injury, the rise of open-source mapping of the mass shootings in America reveal widespread proliferation of military-style gun violence across the national landscape, as if to direct increased attention to the problems of processing a problem from which government funding disappeared.  This is a victory of crowd-sourced mapping.

The onslaught of gun rampages that cause multiple murders and injuries overwhelm, and the clustering of mass shootings in the past ten years to make it impossible to see them as only discrete events:  the virtual continuity that they assumed, as space shrunk between shootings, raises questions of the future and they can be meaningfully processed in a map.  Even as we turn to map their occurrence to find some explanation and meaning from such senseless and only apparently unrelated events.  For although unclear commonalities emerge in their place, their targets, or their scope, they suggest an increased ability to view the level and site of collective instability in the nation.  The distribution of mass shootings over time hence provides a disquieting image of increasing instability of civil society, and demand to be mapped against not only against gun ownership, but against the defense of rights to own guns.  For even although the legality of gun ownership is recognized by courts, nothing is more disturbingly removed from a society of laws than mass shootings.

The term “mass shootings” was only recognized by Congress as they qualified “public mass shootings” as leaving four dead, the FBI had recognized the rapid pace at which public mass shootings in America doubled after 2007, and tripled by 2011.  While a small proportion of gunshot deaths, or the 51,ooo incidents of gun violence over the past year, mass shootings assume particular prominence within the national consciousness from such events–if they undeniably follow the same general distribution with other geographically weighted concentrations of gun violence.



Gun Violence Archive


mas shootings MSA

Stanford Mass Shootings in America (SMA), courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries, as of October, 2015


Even as gun violence has overall declined, the spread of mass shootings suggests a changing picture of America that is still being more clearly processed.  In part, this is because the term “mass shooting” has been defined by the media–both CNN and other television networks–although it was first developed by the FBI to tally criminal acts of murder.  In recent years, it has been diffused and developed via the mass media, and specifically the ever-multiplying banner headlines of cable news, whose counts are directed to define them by the number of those killed–four or more dead defines the “mass shooting.”  The attention to those dead, rather than victims who were injured or escaped violence, of course both reduces their appearance on a data map, rather than, say, numbers of those killed or injured or the number of bullets that were shot, by diluting the aggregations that such shootings map and making them counts of the dead, rather than gaining perspective on them episodes of gun violence–or on how the geography of mass violence and that of civil society overlap.

Reference to “mass shootings” as term of news reporting by CNN (who excluded events where the victims were related to each other) quickly followed, but the time to required for the term to gain currency raises questions about the difficulty to process the new thresholds of such extremely disturbing public acts of violence–USA Today prefers to use “mass killings” instead.   As mass shootings recur with a rapidity to mimic the banner cable news headlines on CNN, where they were frequently announced, one is challenged to process their totality and staccato occurrence alike, given their actual broad geographic distribution.

Because  of the prominent suggestion of serious mental health problems of many perpetrators, we often fall back on diagnoses of individual instability to explain each tragedy that registers in the national consciousness, the huge spike in aggregate mass shootings after 2000 which jumped again from 2013 can’t be diagnosed by individual disturbances or the categories of the mental health profession–so long as gun ownership remains recognized as an individual right.  And yet the mass shooting suggests a deep assault on human rights.

A recent study of the thirty most violent mass shootings since 1945 found more than half occurred in the last decade, and their proliferation seems to have alarmingly grown in recent years  We turn to maps to struggle with the difficulty of comprehending events of terrible particularity in the aggregate.  Despite the terrifying nature of each place name, which evokes a specific time and tragedy, as if a series of battles, aggregation offers the possibility of drilling down into their occurrence underneath the accumulation of horrific individual stories.  Yet we struggle, since even a map of mass shootings including four or more killed or wounded during the past year poses similar cognitive difficulty to process:


Mass Shootings 2015

PBS Newshour/Shooting Tracker


Is this an accurate reflection of the country, and what does it tell us about its laws and legal discourse on gun ownership and possession?  Although the mass shooting is still an anomaly, it is also part of a difficult to confront part of our nation, for the right of personal possession of guns is so difficult to remove or qualify in the United States, and so difficult to prevent rights to gun ownership to be so tragically misconstrued:  if most of the guns purchased for these public shootings were done so .  Part of the difficulty to process these ‘events’ surely is that we focus attention on their perpetrators, as much as their victims, reducing the dead to a statistic, and not comprehending their violence:




The prominence of mass shootings illustrates a confusion of public spaces with military-style gun violence in disturbing ways.  For the spread of individuals who have not only subtracted themselves from civil society, but turned to gun violence as a public performance, suggests not only aberrations; the aggregation of such shootings reveals the increased prominence of military-style violence staged within public space, and forces us to view their dizzying repetition within the national landscape.  The geography of mass shootings still remain poorly understood by most:  although about a third of the victims were near their homes when the shootings occurred, fewer than a quarter of Americans believe that there is reason to fear a mass shooting in their neighborhoods, and a fewer than a twentieth see gun control laws as a problem confronting Americans.  Indeed, if Congress only recently recognized the mass shootings in 2012, as increasing numbers of lawmakers forced to confront their occurrence in their home districts, but many affirm the rights to own guns.  And in 2015, only five states were spared mass shooting sprees–“the bloody, perpetual series of mass shootings in the country this year,” as ABC News put it, no doubt reflecting mass-opinion, and the sense that this steady accumulation may have reached something of a tipping point.


8.  Even disembodied from a geographical form, the sequence of haunting place-names captures the degree to which mass shootings are cognitively difficult to process in their totality, and the complex shifting landscape of mass shootings they create.  For the spectacular violence of each event is encouraged by the deep and abiding sense that the exceptionalism of America that is increasingly rooted, for a small if vocal minority, in its ownership of guns.  The timeline forces us to confront the increased crowding of mass murders over twenty years not as aberrations, but through the inability to continue to segregate them as inexplicable tragedies apart from a larger picture of the nation.  If we turn to maps in attempts to create a more coherent image of their coherence, since the frequency of mass shootings seem without any clearly recognizable patterns in such unimaginable violent aggression against four or more, as if civil society seems no longer able to contain its members.

For the aggregation of mass shootings presents an image of the United States we have difficulty recognizing as holding a mirror to the present, when amassed in their collectivity, and to search for answers for acts that so sharply run against the very fabric of civil society.  We have repeatedly turned to terms like “disturbed“, “delusional“, “psychotic“, “sociopath“, or “undiagnosed schizophrenic” that continue to be bandied about in the wake of successive shootings–as if a diagnosis could prevent such events.   But in offering clinical explanations for the violent tendencies so dramatically exhibited by their perpetrators, rather than explain the sequence of mass shootings which dramatically grew after 2000, and after 2013 rose so dramatically that over a thousand mass shootings occurred in the two years since Sandy Hook, with little change in background checks, to demand a collective mapping that a focus on mental illness denies.   The array of weapons used in such killings raises pressing questions about their perpetrators’ access to assault rifles, but similarly fails to map reasons for this anguished performance of public violence against lives–



Washington Post


If poignant stories of the mental instability of those who committed rampages since 1984 force us to revisit possible counterfactuals, mass shootings may be less easily collectively diagnosed than mapped against legal discourse of gun ownership and freedom to own guns.  For recent and widely reposted data from Mother Jones suggests that most of the guns used in mass shootings over the past thirty years were legally purchased, raising questions about their contingency.  The rights of gun ownership on which our laws insist are embodied in conceal-and-carry permits, the rhetoric of gun ownership, and growing defense of rights to gun ownership as individual rights protected by the Bill of Rights and US Constitution–which have discouraged a public recognition and accounting of gun deaths.  Although many of mass shootings occur in places not known for violence, the continued championing of assault rifles behind the empty slogan that “the only way to stop a bad guy is a good guy with a gun” valorize the weapon in ways that exculpate public entities or gun salesmen–protected by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act--from responsibility of mass shootings’ occurrence:  the shifting of  responsibility too easily comes to fall into the domain of mental health, without looking at the dangerous opening created by an immobile legal discourse on gun ownership and firearm use.

Can the rise of mass killings be mapped within the access to guns that current laws permit, and the rhetoric of gun ownership that they unknowingly promote?   Or is it truly conscionable to see “firearms” as identical, despite the quite different uses to which they can be put?

Although the sequence of mass shootings tallied in the header to this post follows no predictable pattern (save to rapidly increase) and geographical distribution seems happenstance, the growth and unpredictable nature of mass killings demands to be mapped other than psychiatric labeling and armchair diagnosis.   For black-boxing the spread of mass killings in questions of individual mental illness neglects to map against a changing discourse on the ownership and personal possession of guns and abnegates collective responsibility for the density of the clustering of these violent episodes increasingly part of day-to-day life.


Ten Years

Mother Jones/Data Analysis by Harvard School of Public Health

For “mass shootings” have so rapidly and dramatically accelerated during the past decade to overwhelm understanding.  Indeed, the turn to map their occurrence provides a basis to distance oneself from the terrible occurrence and find some purchase on what seems less a Hobbesian state of nature without government, but a conscious remove of shooters from civil society.  The rise of mass shootings in public places, although but a small fraction of all gun-killings, makes us want to map them to make sense of their inexplicable violence, to give some coherence to the sites of such deeply shocking events, as well as gain perspective on them.  For although fewer than a quarter of Americans fear that they live in an neighborhood where a mass shooting might occur, the landscape of mass shooting has become an image of America.  And if ShootingTracker.com and Gun Violence Archive have crowd-sourced statistics on all gun violence since 2012, to create a picture of the country, the image of mass shootings are both more complex and difficult to assess, partly because of their removal from and far deeper shock to civil society.


Gun iolence .ComGun Violence Project


The more apt coloration of such data from KQED may better suggest the haunting by the dark spectre of mass shootings overwhelming the land:





Rather than being chaotic disruptions, the increasing chronological clustering of individual mass shootings suddenly appear as a connected group of events, whose quick succession both challenges the integrity of their remembrance, but seem cognitively challenging to grasp or gain clear bearings on.  Even as the pace of gun-violence has decreased, the prominence in national news and consciousness of the mass shootings, and the prominent display of murderous violence that parallels their prominence in the national consciousness has created a new landscape of American violence and fear.  Such apparent singularities have grown in the shadows of a country overly preoccupied with attacks of foreign terrorists or extremists, despite the greater than thousand-fold likelihood that between being killed by guns than a jihadist attack on American soil.  Is it possible we have decided not to look for the best ways to map and understand such violence as it has spread?  

Or is the confusion of civic and military categories part of the difficulty of comprehending the logic or pattern of mass killings in the United States?  For the landscape of mass-shootings suggests another way of looking at America that may illuminate the gap between the rhetoric of gun ownership and civil society.  The very density with which mass shootings appear on the timeline, blending with one another, reflects the deep difficulties of processing their occurrence, but also the manner in which mass shootings have come to represent the nation to an uncomfortable degree.  Despite the  specificity and unicity of each circumstance and event, the public violence of the mass shootings demands to be mapped in relation not only to guns, but a rejection of civil society.

In its totality, the timeline raises questions about the aggregation of such deeply terrifying tragic events and the limits of comprehension save as an irregular quickening of public violence.  While they surely offer a picture of the nation whose exceptionalism is evident in its rights to own guns and frequent mass shootings–and they just don’t happened elsewhere–the script of such deeply tragic mass shootings recently has become recognizable event. The translation of the compilation of data, which first appeared at Stanford University’s Geospatial Center  as an interactive map of Mass Shootings in America, has been translated into a range of new visualizations to grasp the increased frequency of their daily occurrence, if not, rather terrifyingly, a way in itself of experiencing time.


Mass Killing Pulse

USA Today/Gannett–Mass Shootings in America until Dec 24, 2015


Although such killings have a clear history and precedent, at times dated as far back as 1891 or even to 1984, the term “mass shooting” first gained currency around 2012, in reaction to the expansion of public shootings, and the classification introduced by the FBI was soon adopted by CNN, who expanded the bar for fatalities in a mass shooting to four, but also excluded events where the victims were related.  After the U.S. Congress in 2013 officially had qualified “mass shootings” as a single incident leaving three dead in the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act, as if taking responsibility to define the term as part of America–even while refusing to maintain a public registry of such shootings.  The relative frequency of their occurrence suggests a deep confusion between civilian and military space that demands to be unraveled, even if the refusal to maintain a public registry of such public shootings may soon change.

The terrible growth of such tragedies from 2008 can be aggregated in compelling ways broader time-scale for greater dramatic impact, as it was by Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober, using criteria of shooting three or more people adopt by the Stanford Geospatial adopted–



–and then comparing relations between fatalities and injuries over time:




The chronology that most painfully punctures the daily news, in a time of terrorist attacks and refugee crises, tracks an increasingly undeniable anomaly and a violence against civil order, and a willingness to separate oneself from it.  Whereas early chronologies were often closely tied to maps from the late middle ages, as ways to process information, the onslaught of the mass-shooting suggests a rapid-fire occurrence difficult to track.  Their rapid progression sadly seems to mimic banner cable news headlines, their most common medium of announcement, whose timeline of recent history hardly permits processing their memory–save fears as to where and when mass shootings might occur.


7.  Indeed the growing geography of fear–and what Appadurai characterized as a geography of anger linked to a prevailing sense of the deeply chaotic state of the present, animates such mass shootings, as much as a fear of globalization or economic change.  But they target the nation as a whole in a tragically desperate sense:  the nature of mass-shootings have indeed become an image of the defining character and deep insularity of America, as well as a registration of the anger of individuals who feel increasingly challenged, dislocated, and removed from changes that they cannot control.  Indeed, however tempting it is to see mass-shootings as a consequence of terrorism, as the tragic Paris shootings, the scripts for these events are all too similar to the confusion of civil and military spaces, rather than terrorist activities–it is remains more likely to die in a mass-shooting than terrorist attack in the United States.  For such tragic events blur public spaces of civil society and a militarized space of combat in increasingly terrifying ways; the rise of mass-shootings in public life are exclusively initiated by deeply marginalized men–94% of suspects are male–who decide to undertake a striking unprecedented degree of military-style violence.

The geography of such killings seems enabled by their subtraction from civil society. Interrogating what invites such a confusion of public and militarized space might generate a clearer geography of mass shootings, lest they seem as random or chaotic as one might seem:  if offering a map provides such order to such psychically disruptive events, they also challenge clear containment within the order of a map.  The dramatically increasing sales and supply of firearms–until recently most widely sold at Walmart and no doubt soon to be delivered to your home on Amazon drone–have generated an increased legal access to guns and heightened rhetoric to gun ownership that mirrors the culture of mass shootings.  The chronology of mass shootings resist any semblance of coherence of a map, so deeply grievous and inexplicable is the loss of life, but illustrates the terrifying frequency with which they tragically  punctuate time in ways that increasingly press against civil society.  ationalization of shootings as the “cost” of the liberties we  accord gun possession dismisses their unacceptable risks as violations of human rights, independent of the considerable national cost–if only a small fraction of the total costs of gun violence–currently total over $200 billion in health costs,–more than Apple’s annual revenue.

But the spread of mass-shootings seems to stand at the intersection of the relations to guns that our legal culture has encouraged, and the cultivation of human-object relation in the murderous impact of rifles and other guns.  Although over three-quarters of the guns that were used by those who orchestrated mass-shootings since 1964 were legally purchased in stores, the geography of gun-ownership alone does not correlate to the apparently inexplicable proliferation of angry mass-shootings.  Indeed, we are frustrated however much we repeatedly return to their geographic distribution in attempts to grasp the rapidly spiraling increase in their terrifying violence and frequency, for the mass shooting is undertaken by those who separate themselves from civil society, or willingly conflate the civil space with spaces of combat.  The dramatic rise in the legal availability of firearms and the increased identification with guns gun permits have encouraged radically changed the landscape of gun violence.


Guns used in Mass Kilings

Gannett/USA Today


Perhaps the difficulty that the number of guns in public circulation in the United States outnumber the population are less a basis that might explain mass-shootings than the close ties that individuals have construed to their guns.  Even though they themselves constitute but a small portion of all violent crimes committed with firearms,  public mass shootings have resulted in the murder of 547 people, with 476 other persons injured, these manifestations of violence first doubled and then tripled, as if breaking what prior watersheds of the violence in public life.  For mass shootings’ recurrence is all too easily recognized when they occur, and far too often accepted as an inevitable consequence of freedom to own guns.  Although there is no clear “map-sense” in the spread of events of gun violence that have injured or killed multiple victims, and no clear pattern among these rampages,  the timeline provides us with a sense of distance on the spread of such shootings–rare in 1990, slightly slowing before 2005–by which to gauge the current spread of mass-shootings, and the steep challenge of any data visualization.  The failure of coherence in the tragically crowded chronology of mass-shootings reflects, more powerfully than any map, the difficulty given their radical remove from a society of laws of processing the chronology of shootings that have increasingly occurred across the most populated areas of the country.  These terribly violent crimes, rarely tied to self-interest or revenge, suggest a deeply distorted world-view, whose distortion of gun-use occasions needed reflection as pushing to an extreme the notion of individual liberty even if few would recognize it as such.


8.  Where such introspection will come from seems difficult to say, so problematic is it to map as a mirror of the country–and so easy is it to use a data visualization to do so.  The timeline creates something of a mirror of the country, but mapping the blurring the unprecedented intensity of mass-shootings in public spaces suggests a way to understand their spread.  While the latest of which most always seems to constitute a new watershed in public violence, the aggregation of events simply overwhelms ordering–the totality of such troubled shootings erases any agency, and fails to establish the sorts of clarity or reveal the sort of connections that one would expect from a map.  How would a map of the spread of such mass-shootings across the United States be best rendered?

Whereas maps process a coherent relation to expanse, by ordering place for viewers that they can process, the failure of ordering the tragically crowded chronology of mass-shooting frustrates even the most detailed data visualizations, which give limited meaning to the possible motivations and circumstances for such a huge change.  The crowded timeline reflects how shootings have perversely come to punctuate public memory, but at the same time to follow on one another without space for rituals of remembrance of their individuality–or reflect on the national nightmare of the lawlessness of mass-killings as somehow being permitted under the actual rule of law.  If attempts to trace the geography of mass-shootings disorients, it reveals a new image of America.  Even if  few see risks of a mass-shooting near where they reside, that gives rise to a new geography of fears that arise from the sense that no one knows where the next mass-shooting–and there will be a next–will occur:  fears of their occurrence in nearby areas has grown, as the multiplication of mass-shootings expanded far beyond familiar urban regions to become a part of America:  the geography of the 355 mass-shootings reported over the past year–wounding 1,314 and killing 462 in one year, and occurring almost one a day–is vast, but the steady stream of such shootings have occurred most anywhere in the United States, although 5% of Americans stubbornly believe that guns make public places safer persists, and most still believe the occurrence of such events in their own neighborhoods remote.  The landscape marked by the victims of mass-shootings however suggests a new image of the nation.


Stanford map

Stanford Mass Shootings in America (SMA), courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries (map compiled with data of October 27, 2015)


Such is the deeply disturbing disconnect between the actual geography of mass-shootings and the spatial imaginary of Americans:  even if the same proportion (35%) believe that “mass shootings are just a fact of life in America today,” far more Americans are concerned about the risk of future shootings than think that the risk is considerable where they reside–though over half expressed concerns of the such a mass-shooting near where they lived.   Yet how does the distribution actually look?  The geography of “mass shootings,” documented since Sandy Hook by the Stanford Geospatial Center, for lack of a national database, which accepts three or more injured by guns as a mass shooting, if it has grown quite considerably from late October to the late December, 2015, already suggested the difficult density of understanding patterns in how such mass-shootings had already spread across much of the country by October–and constituted what is almost a dangerous republic within a republic.


Stanford map

Stanford Mass Shootings in America (SMA), courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries (map compiled with data of October 27, 2015)


The timeline used  in the header to this post serves to map this increased violence, even if the litany of place-names in the timeline is removed from the nation’s geography. What can account for this crowding of violent killings with guns?   The frequency may encourage both a reassessment of thresholds of violence–Ruby’s Massacre and the Columbine Massacre have morphed to the Aurora, Charleston, and San Bernardino Shootings–as the number of mass shootings in public space with semi-automoatic rifles has grown.  As well as reflecting increased access to guns, however, it may be that the rise of shootings has reflected the reception of a particularly perverse and wrong-headed defense of rights to the access to guns as if this entitled their use as a form of public expression–if not a public statement, however pathological or hateful this form of individual expression.

The increase in the vociferous assertion that gun ownership is a right–protected within the Bill of Rights, as if it were an individual right–may have encouraged a quite idiosyncratic misconstruing of individual liberties, and at least encouraged a misguided belief that individual access to automatic weapons is protected by constitutional law as an individual “right.”  The chronology that marks the rapid acceleration of mass-shootings in public reveals the deep difficulty of cognitively processing their individual occurrence–both in the degree to which mass-shootings remain profoundly difficult to process, and even to express.  For the timeline marks a density of mass shootings’ occurrence tragically seems a national map:  although the series of evocative place-names where shootings occurred are not mapped in geographical terms, their chronological crowding mark a nation that, if increasingly difficult to come to terms with, aptly express the difficulty to accept or even address.  If the crowding of place in the above timeline expresses its a failure to lend order to their recurrence, it raises questions as to whether a geographic distribution could adequately capture their steep cost, both as a loss of human life or trauma–since 2007, the chronology of shootings is so tightly clustered to show them as a part of life in the United States.  If firearms are permitted by law, it suggests a deep misunderstanding of gun use as a form of expression.

For mass-shootings have so tragically recurred with historically unprecedented rapidity–each compelling attention but difficult to synthesize in a coherent image, echoing the singular position gun ownership continues to occupy in political discourse.  What, if anything, can be done to direct more attention to the growing fatalities from mass-shootings in an era when the demand for purchasing guns only continues to grow, with no sense of the steep risks such high sales pose for civil society?  The profound, if deeply misguided misconstrual that protections of free access to guns addresses their possession and civilian use–rather than being limited to guaranteeing well-regulated local militia–has helped turn a blind eye to the 30,000 plus civil deaths that result from gun violence, including increasingly common rampages of mass-shootings.  The difficulty to address gun-safety reforms has encouraged a blossoming of gun purchases and the advocacy of the protection of gun rights by Americans, and bodes dangerously for the future, even if such killings constitute a fraction of gun deaths in the United States.  Visualizations of mass-shootings provides an interesting–if challenging-way to understand the United States, which reveal something of a hidden republic within the country–one nourished by the insistence on Second Amendment rights to own guns, and fed by a deep conviction of the inviolability of removing firearms from an individual’s possession.

If the increasingly rapid growth of gun ownership has been fed by fear, the difficulty of describing the expansion of mass-shootings on America’s sense of public space remains deeply difficult to assess with certainty.


mas shootings MSA

Stanford Mass Shootings in America (SMA), courtesy Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries (map compiled with data as of October 27, 2015)


Steep fear of future mass shootings provide an interestingly new picture of the country, and a new geography of fear.  The ways that this epidemic of mass-shootings might be adequately processed–through a visualization or in  geographic terms–is the subject of this post.  For the depressing density of such clustering of mass-shootings in America has grown since 2012 to a degree that has lent an unhealthy aura of familiarity to the term alone, defined by the FBI as a shootings killing or wounding four or more, but which have multiplied to refer to shootings of many more–the comprehensive tally of deaths from mass-shootings in 2015 alone devised using data from shootingtracker.com have stained North America a bright red to try to give concreteness to the all too familiar term used for shootings in crowded settings or public spaces difficult to comprehend, but necessary to grasp–the interactive visualization tallies actual numbers of killed by Google-like teardrop shaped pointers, casting appropriate shadows over the place where they occurred, as if in a partial gesture of mourning to the many killed in each, but it is impossible that the pointers and their shadows will not at times overlap:


Mass Shootings 2015.pngPBS Newshour/Shooting Tracker


While such aggregations of mass-shootings are profoundly affecting, they create little sense of new thresholds for such wanton displays of violence that the rise of mass-shootings seem to have created across America.

The shadows that mass-shootings have come to cast over the country, which seem to get longer and darker with the expansion of collective grieving and dead bodies after each tragically inexplicable event, have gone beyond raising the threshold for violence in the country, but have increasingly demanded attempts to give meaning and concretize their proliferation lest we lose a sense of who we are:  for if the map above is a mirror, of which San Bernardino was the 355th shooting this year, it demands reflection as we approach the year’s end.  The successive occurrence of such heinous and collectively inexplicable crimes–so deeply challenging in their occurrence to lead President Obama to ponder, “as I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough.”

Staring at a map, without even knowing what is being mapped in this continent whose place-names are blanketed by sites of mass-shootings’ occurrence.  Yet in the light of  shootings this month in San Bernardino, Calif., the disproportionate role of access to semi-automatic weapons in America raises questions about their place in civil society, and place in a society that values individual life.  If the tragic proliferation of mass shootings in America seems a set of disembodied toponyms that resist clear relations to spatial position, they constitute a litany in which it is hard to find coherent meaning in most data visualizations that have been devised.  For rather than map the occurrences of such shootings by population density, gun laws, race, or affluence–despite the value of such data–it seems both far more important and relevant to map the intersection of guns and political discourse.  Yet we quite regularly turn to maps to explain the epidemic, frustrated by the difficulty in adequately aggregating events so deeply  disturbing, and have difficulty to register how such shootings have come to punctuate national news with a degree of shock and incredulity that proves difficult to sustain.  Perhaps it is ethically unsound to remove from the grotesque tragedy of these newly classified events, in light of the lack of meaning that each and every event occasions.


9.  Would we do better to re-map the rise of mass shootings in relation to the relentless promotion of viewing gun ownership as a right and individual freedom protected by constitutional law, than to aggregate the prevalence of death by firearms in recent years?  Such a map offers a disquieting mirror, to be sure, but only partly captures the assertiveness that mass-shootings have recently come to occupy in public life.

The same statistics from Stanford’s Geospatial Analysis, envisioned in a bar graph of escalating injuries and fatalities by the Economist spanning a long durée from the 1960s, force offer a deeply depressing recognition of shootings in public spaces–universities, army bases, immigration service centers, movie theaters, elementary schools–that assault civil society.


Economist envisions SGC


Although every mass-killing seems to reset thresholds for public violence, the collective image presented in the timeline first featured in Mother Jones but based on data designed to supplement the shocking absence of a national database of gun-ownership, shootings across the country raises questions stubbornly independent from their geographic distribution, but demand interrogation as part of a national political discourse we would rather not recognize.  The absence of locations in the above visualization of place-names that became widely known for suggests a rational distribution of mass-killings seems less relevant than how such killings are increasingly a part of who we are–despite attempts to link their spread to terrorists, terrorism,  or foreign wars.  Only 43 of the 641 killed in mass-shootings over the past ten years are credibly related to Islamic extremists, it seems important to overcome difficulties of mis-mapping the relations between their violence and embrace of guns in America rather than as coming from afar rather than rooted in the potential distortions of our own legal culture.

It may be time to examine the extent to which it is home-grown.  The estimates of the increased circulation of guns in the entire United States since the election of a President who made gun control a priority has been dramatic–and whose election in 20008 led gun sales to crest above 1 million per month.  Almost 16 million guns entering the US markets in 2013 alone–and the call for future gun safety regulation has led to a new surge in gun sales, in an increasingly strident (if deeply mistaken) assertion of gun ownership as if it were an individual right that was guaranteed and unqualifiedly protected by law.



New York Times


The gun manufacturers who share profits with the lobbying group of the NRA manipulate the value of stoking fears of gun control measures–in the guise of an attack on gun liberties–to increase their own sales.  The increase of handguns, rifles, and semi-automatic weapons that can be registered such an uptick around President Obama’s election, with fears of the eventual confiscation of weapons, may even serve to catalyze the outpouring of mass shootings since, as the full-throated defense by gun-owners associations such as the National Rifle Association that gun ownership was a legally protected and guaranteed right “to keep and bear arms,” despite the quite different sense of the personal ownership of weapons.  The imagery by which Ted Cruz championed his defense of Second Amendment rights–echoing the explicitly racist Tea Party imagery–by photoshopping President Obama, in military garb, bent on violating rights of gun possession, eliding civilian and military space and conflating voting rights with a defense of rights to possess firearms in ways designed to circulate widely as a rallying call and fundraising pitch on social media:

The terribly offensee offensivequerade of the President as if he were less mssn the Commander in Chief, but festooned only with a button with the insignia of “change” suggest he hardly has American’s’ actual interests at stake

Cruz's Character AssassinationTed Cruz Campaign Flyer/www.tedcruz.org

The deep confusion of civil and military space is hardly new in a nation that has been repeatedly grieving from mass shootings, but suggests a newly militarized landscape of fear that to rally support for Ted Cruz, down to the more than distasteful depiction of President Obama as endangering the Constitution, rather than a Commander in Chief–as if he were a foreign agent in fact bent on the violation of constitutional liberties.

As it stands, the sense of an information overload of public grieving outweighs any meaning able to be gleaned from any collective representation of such violent and devastating occurrences that continue to boggle the mind.  Perhaps this is partly provoked by the increasing occurrence of what is defined as “mass shooting”–defined as a shooting killing four or more–is graphically suggested in the crowded chronology of individual mass shootings, in ways that oddly supplants geographic visualization with a chronology whose density overpowers viewers:  the intolerably crowded chronology of mass-shootings in public spaces over the past ten years were once unthinkable,– as were the now-common rituals of public grieving that try to process and come to terms with the terrible tragedy of such an event, and the deep psychological impact it has on a community and society.  Even if only a quarter of Americans are concerned about a mass shooting in their neighborhood, most all are vicarious spectators to the grieving in their aftermath.



Honoring Victims of Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino  Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times


5c87f211-cb61-49e7-86e9-2c7299fa549aAfter Charleston Getty Images



Monroe Township, NJ/Daily News



After San Bernardino Genaro Molina/LA Times


16firstdraftnl-poll-tmagArticle(after San Bernardino)  Jim Wilson/The New York Times

California Shootings

San Manuel Stadium in San Bernardino, CA December 3, 2015 (AP/Mark J. Terrill)


The increased frequency of mourning for mass shootings reveals a search for restoration of their occurrence, which almost incredibly becomes ever more tragic.

Despite the valorization of every details of the attacks in the collective obituaries that have painfully become ritualized aftermath of each event, in an attempt to find closure in their very disruptiveness, the tragedy defies mapping in ways that make it difficult to come to terms with its recurrence, or to consider any logical connections between the range of admittedly often psychopathic shootings of innocent victims, and obscure their relation to the increasingly wide championing of access to guns–and the eery current of adamant insistence that gun-ownership is a right, despite the violation of human rights that the availability of rapid fire firearms like the AR-15–possessively championed among its owners as “America’s Guns“–stands to risk.  The difficulty of confiscating guns reveals the disconnect between their deadly power and the responsibility of ownership in the United States of America.

The epidemic remains to be effectively mapped, if it ever can.  Indeed, at three years distance from the Sandy Hook mass-shooting, which left twenty children and six educators dead with the gunman, and suggested new heights of insensitivity in murdering the unprotected and defenseless.  The landscape of mass-shootings seems hardly to have changed, save by mass-shootings becoming more unpredictable and frequent.  We regularly turn to maps to explain the epidemic of gun deaths in the nation, frustrated by the difficulty in summing up or aggregating events so deeply affecting and disturbing, and so stubbornly attached to individual particularities, that they are so particularly difficult to refer or materialize in a map–or reduce to a single cartographical form of sufficient explanatory power–so horrific is each individual event as a drama, and so stunning has their actual frequency been in recent years.  Even if such crimes constitute but a small share of overall gun violence, the public planned staging of apparently indiscriminate events is difficult to get one’s mind around.  For even three years and a thousand shootings after Sandy Hook, twenty mass shootings of 2015 occurred in the face of a continued absence of gun laws–laws that could potentially have prevented the perpetrators from ‘legally’ obtaining guns.

Such stalemate  is difficult to understand or rationalize, as is the refusal to research the origins of gun violence, or restrict firearm sales of firearms with magazines that are so readily able to be “legally” procured without any examination or scrutiny of their purchasers’ past criminal history.  Yet what, one might ask, is a “legally” procured semi-automatic rifle?  What constitutes or stands to be recognized as a legal firearm?  The multiple asterisks in the Smith & Wesson advertisement for the M&P 15 “Sport” suggest the active engagement of many of its features–a collapsible stock; thirty round magazine; suppressor compensator–with the local legal requirements so prominent in the minds of their clientele.




Beside the inexplicable spread of mass shootings in America, there’s a deep inability to articulate an adequate response to the assertion that the ownership of guns is a right–evident in the stark contrast of the deep conviction of 35% of Americans that guns make public places safer and a geography where four people or more were shot by guns–even if they were not killed–since 2012.  Despite some serious questioning by criminologists about the apparent increase in mass-killings in the United States that grew scattershot across the nation since 2010, the terms of debate indicate deeply definitional problems of even describing what mapping mass-shootings in America are–do victims have to die?  how must die for the occurrence?–and what the fairly new term means.  Such questions may indeed only reflect the great difficulties we still have in getting our minds around and coming to terms with any visualization of the actual or imagined distribution of such unpredictable and indiscriminate events, here mapped from late 2010 in an apparent lack of any clear pattern as to where or when they might occur that is consonant with the sense that there is no rhyme or reason to their occurrence, which must remain the bitter “price” for our continued constitutional liberties.



Mass-shootings since Sandy Hook, by Soo Oh using data from Mass Shooting Tracker, via Stanford Geospatial Center–do check out the interactive web map


Although the prominence such mass shootings occupy in national news surely amplifies the truly traumatic sense, the above timeline used in the header to this post equally suggest the deep difficulties of making sense of their spread–as do and the now common collective biographies of their victims, or harrowing news profiles of the killers who acquired the guns, which almost replace the simple coherence of a data visualization.  But does a “mass-shooting” even require fatalities to be counted?  What can explain the government’s refusal to keep a database of gun deaths, despite the increasing violation of human rights they pose?   The difficulty of achieving closure on such mass-killings challenges the cognitive abilities, much as the crowded timeline of the heading to this post.


10.  The most deeply striking characteristic of this terrifying epidemic of mass-shootings may not lie in the intensity of their occurrence, but their overwhelming occurrence within public spaces.  If mass-shootings might multiply due to imitation or emulation, as public displays of gun violence gain a clear cultural script, shifting the threshold for planning and executing unthinkable mass-murders in public space, the decision to execute the innocent in public has its own terrifying geography:  the spate of mass-killing with rifles staged in public life–in movie theaters; schools; workplaces; clinics; churches–indiscriminately claimed lives in rampages not easily explained only by psychologic disturbance or by psychopathic traits.  Such crimes are staged as if to take justice into one’s hands, in a geography without coherence in a map, reflecting a conviction of individual “rights” to “keep and bear arms” that intentionally distorts what the Bill of Rights never intended as a right of personal possession.

Is the icon of the armed minuteman–the ever-ready marksman with cocked gun in hand, an eery underside of this proliferation in civil space?  The mistaken acceptance and promotion of such a pseudo-“right”–and its defense has dramatically grown with the belief that rights to the ownership of guns will be rolled back and individual firearms confiscated–that has quickly gained fairly terrifying increased traction in public political discourse.  Indeed, they not only occur as the per capita presence of firearms in America has mushroomed to one per citizens and approximately 310,000,000 million firearms as of 2012–114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns–or more than the number of Americans.  At the same time, the expansion of AR-15’s in American hands have crested beyond 3,750,000 by late 2012, as sales of such guns ballooned with astounding rapidity:   background checks that precede the legal possession of semiautomatics multiplied at the alarming rate of 50% in five years before Newtown.

The wildly increasing circulation of rifles and handguns in America have been paralleled in public discourse by a deeply distorted and fraught notion of the liberties of “bearing” a gun–as if this means being equipped with a semi-automatic weapon, rather than holdng a musket within a state militia–or as if the reloading and cocking of muskets has some historically essential equality with the expressive abilities of the magazines of rapid-fire assault rifles.  The expansion of an eery political current that treats the rights to gun ownership as a right of political expression deeply distorts the notion of constitutional liberties and freedoms.  Does the representation of gun-ownership and -use as a right correlate to the geography of mass-shootings in America?  Surely the conviction of most Americans that guns “makes public places safer stands in contrast to the rise of mass-shootings in America.  One of the most surprising mapping of reactions to mass-killings may be not only in the expansion of a geography of fear, and the a growing demand for the purchase and owning of more firearms and guns, in reaction to perceived fears of gun control.  For on the heals of individual mass-shootings, we see surges in the sales of firearms–recent sales have especially increased in Southern California, after the San Bernardino shootings, in reaction to pronounced fears of gun control, in the same manner that gun-dealers were overwhelming by requests for weapons after previous mass-shootings–and the increased risk of gun killings in those areas where guns are more clearly concentrated.

If the presence of firearms alone in specific regions of the country constitutes a clear measure of increased risks a clear index of risk, that distribution cannot explain the rise of the mass-shooting phenomenon.  The difficulty of even defining the “mass-shooting” as an event that can be mapped–what, indeed constitutes a mass-shooting?  four fatalities by firearms?  or should three deaths suffice? or are gun-wounds sufficient to identify the danger of mass-shootings?–reveal a difficulty of processing or coming to terms with the rising risk of premeditated killing sprees in public space that seem quite distinct in pressing the limits of public violence and in the tragic consequences of such deranged actions.  The failure of the United States government to keep or retain records or data on gun deaths suggests the odd disconnect between the ability to process such events in ways that would allow a meaningful mapping of mass-shootings.

For the relations between mass-shootings and gun sales demands mapping as an intersection of a spatial imaginary that is rooted in the defense of rights to possess firearms and the the proliferation of sales of firearms–and the implicit sanctioning of guns in public use that distinguishes the United States from other countries, and that has become prevalent in recent decades, suggesting a true national nightmare from which we are not likely to soon awake.


National Nightmare: Mapping Gun Homicides per 100,000 in nations


Despite frequent defenses of gun ownership repeatedly rehearsed with increasing force in political discourse, can the possession of firearms be legitimately based on claims to a preexisting right?  The frequency of mass-shootings in America cannot be reconciled with beliefs that their occurrence is to be seen only as the price of the “freedoms we enjoy,” as if these deaths were a sort of collateral for the freedoms that are naturalized within one country.  For their terrifying frequency seems almost to sanction a form of violent expression is difficult to defend by the Second Amendment or an individual liberty, and whose costs are deeper than their benefits–despite the rhetorical championing of the ownership of automatic rifles was a right protected by law, and the AR-15 or AK-47 akin to a muskets of revolutionary militias that similarly served to protect the public safety.  Does the defense of gun ownership create a space for separating oneself from civil society in increasingly violent ways, and combining the militarized behavior within a civil society from which many falsely feel themselves disenfranchised?

As the costs on our perception of public space augment, and the basic human rights of occupying public space or sanctioned clinics grow, so does the preposterously contorted argument that gun-ownership–“bearing arms”–is constitutionally protected.  Increasingly spread over radio and the internet as if gun-ownership were  naturalized to the land, using a deeply and perversely misguided notion that “bearing arms” justifies individual possession of firearms, the Constitution is explicitly misunderstood:  for what was framed by the framers as a right to militias is taken as a right to personal possession, although it sought only to pertain to “bearing” guns in the context of state militia.  But the notion of such a shadow “state”–or unseen republic–is regularly reified within the symbols of a terrifying current in political discourse, as if to imagine themselves as a group whose ownership of guns demands to be defended and whose fetishization of the AR-15 demands further examination.  So does the open and explicit elision of an iconography of military aggression with the emblems of gun ownership, which seek to advocate and advertise possession assault rifles as an unqualified individual right.






Is the right to load a musket in any way similar to the rounds of ammunition able to fired with rapidly form a rifle’s reloadable magazine?  Such taunting slogans and symbolic badges bizarrely conflate rights and assault weapons in ways that tie use and possessions of assault weapons to a rhetoric of vigilance–imagining the owner of an automatic rifle as finding historical precedent in the minuteman’s musket, and imagining gun-ownership as a right to be asserted against fear of the encroachment of an overly invasive national government.

As perpetuated by underground radio stations and internet sales points, the pseudo-right to “bear arms” is taken as itself in need of protection by firearms, even in the face of our marking of time with mass-shootings at a density difficult to comprehend.  The rhetoric of continued vigilance that these items promote create an imagined geography of defending liberties that were able to be secured by guns, as if the right to possess arms was itself in need of vigilant protection and preservation–and  reflects a revolutionary underground that can be imagined as a space of concealed gun permits, based on “exercising  exercising the Second Amendment right guaranteed to them” in a true land of liberty, as evoked in the images of minute-men and the date of the Constitution or Bill of Rights that so anachronistically celebrate gun-ownership as a right.



Gun Owners of America


Such willful acts of creative anachronism go to the heart of redefining the Constitution–the basis of the civil society and the nation–as the basis for the Republic of Gun Holders’ defense of their pseudo-rights to possess and “bear” arms in the manner historically guaranteed to state militias were sanctioned in the country’s founding document–and to imagine a nation within the nation where rights to carry and conceal firearms are guaranteed.  How “bearing” arms became permuted to the carrying of concealed weapons is a long story of tortured logic, but it was most successful in those states that have historically rejected federal oversight.



Give Me Liberty:  Where 8% of Population Own Concealed Weapons Permits


The increased confusion of gun laws that prevent police officers from challenging individuals bearing arms to show their open-carry permits in Texas challenges such a map–and raises pressing questions on the extent to which we are tending to a society that tolerates carrying guns in public space–or diminishes police authority to supervise the presence of AR-15s in public settings in America, as such authority would diminish the rights of individual gun possession.


Bill Pugliano Gun Activitists.pngBill Pugliano/Getty Images


In this spatial imaginary, the United States is seen as the last bastion of individual liberties of owning guns, a category quite largely construed:




This imagined republic champions its vigilant defense of “bearing” firearms including “assault weapons” as a deep form of liberty, placing a deeply anachronistic construction on their belief in “bearing” arms.  Indeed, the neo-revolutionary symbology of individual resistance openly casts possession of firearms with urgency within a vocabulary and syntax akin to the defense of individual rights, suggesting the apprehension of a new state of emergency where rights are in need of defense.

The spread of paranoia of gun control is perhaps evident in the expansion of “California compliant” AR-15’s with detachable magazines.  For the expansion of an imaginary space of vigilance and readiness, though absent from most quantitative data visualizations of mass-killings, firearm assaults, or gun ownership, choreographed as if in an underground nation, replete with news outlets that purport to purvey the actual truth of increasing need for protecting individual gun-possession, given the restriction of such “rights” since the 1988 reclassification of “assault weapons” and the 1993 Assault Weapons Ban.  The symbolic potency of the assault weapon–the icon of the AR-15–within such “gun rights” discourse seems to taunt viewers with its open celebration of a refusal to respect such limits as gun control.


Come and Try.png


11.  The depressingly dense crowding of the chronology of mass-shootings, which melds into a terrifying virtual continuity from 2013, marking how the almost daily recurrence of mass-killings overwhelm time for their remembrance, return us to the problem of processing their continued occurrence over time.   As such mass-killings so tragically come in seemingly swift succession, from Ft. Hood through Newtown to Roseberg, OR, to San Bernardino, CA, linked by common use of the AR-15’s gun enthusiasts champion “America’s guns,” register not only a landscape of increased mass-shootings, but a spatial geography of the defense of gun-possession and -use.  Such claims to the rights to own guns ineluctably moves us further away form discussion of gun control, and paradoxically push public debate away from guns–leaving Republican candidates to affirm their support for gun ownership as an individual liberty.

The new geography of mass-shootings has increased our fears of the near-inevitability of their recurrence, but leave us with a deadened sense that goes beyond individual guilt or criminality–and raise questions of the costs of contorted classification gun ownership as a form of liberty.  The very unpredictability of their sequence elicited an ever-present geography of fear across the nation that is impossible to map:  we return to the stories of the individual lives that were lost, but not the semi-automatic rifles that enabled them.  Because many see restrictions on gun ownership as violating rights, we increasingly seem both defenseless against the geography of mass-killings that increasingly endanger individual safety, despite the increased sense of security gun control would create in civil society.  If the laws of the Constitution have defined the collectivity of the nation, the  vehement fixation on championing “rights to keep and bear arms” as the principle freedom of the country

The stunning sequence of mass-killings over the past three decades makes us turn to maps, in hopes to gain some purchase on what can seem unrelated events and to organize the pace of their occurrence in recent decades in a meaningful way.  The empty recitation of  place-names–Columbine; Ft. Hood; Newtown; Aurora; San Bernardino–seems to attempt to come to terms with the tortured geography of mass-shootings in the United States, intoned as if the sites of Civil War battles, followed by a shudder of recollection far more of numbness than understanding:  although each dot marks a place in time, as much as in space, whose relationships fail to add up.  The relation of this swift succession of killings to gun “rights” is not clear.  But the deep-set reluctance to tackle the issue of assault weapons whose magazines permit such rapid fire–and strength of wide resistance far beyond the 1.5 Americans who already own them to their banning–hints in terrifyingly ways at the introduction of a new landscape of mass-shootings in America.

Any regulation of “assault weapons” is counted by increasing stockpiled by gun owners within a debate about “rights”–and the constitutional protections on gun-ownership–even as mass killings pose clear threats to and violations of human rights.  The openly taunting slogan “Come and Get It,” reproduced in an array of quotidian objects to be coded identifying signs, blends the internet initials that tag the Right to Keep and Bear Arms from US Revolution with the weapons of choice of many killers today.  The array of objects code a sort of revolutionary brotherhood, collapsing and conflating understandings of the law in the black of right-wing militia–


Keychain--Come and Take It

–in a disguise that seems a rallying cry designed to mask the fears of gun confiscation through the very firearms mass-killers most widely used, placing them totemically above the date of the Constitution’s passage, beneath a cryptically coded insignia–“RKBA,” a.k.a. Right to Keep and Bear Arms.



San Bernardino Police Department


12.  The terrifyingly crowed chronology of recent mass-shootings is both disorienting and disarming because it affords so little clarity or meaning as a sequence save as an onslaught of taking liberty with guns pose such a clear human rights offense:  the rapid-fire pace in the graphic introducing this post suggests the near-impossibility of ordering time in such an intense onslaught of the occurrence of mass-killings, or to impose meaning on them.  Indeed, the recurrence of mass-killings is deeply troubling because it lack any easy or clear coherence, and reminds us of the far remove of firearms’ use from any sense of personal responsibility.

The frequency of mass-shootings across America appear less to punctuate time or space than they mimic the rapid-fire sequence of banner headlines of cable news which draw attention to their occurrence; the traumas remains difficult to comprehend, or map meaningfully, save as something like a nightmare from which we cannot awake. Despite the overall national preponderance of firearm fatalities resulting from hand-guns, it is striking that something of a caesura occurred in the sequence of mass-shooting during the ten-year ban on such rifles, from 1994 to 2004.  Does the tempo of mass-killings suggest a deep misunderstanding of liberty?  Whether one parses time passed since Sandy Hook, Columbine, or since 9/11, or the threat of terrorist violence on U.S. soil, the growth of gun-related violence is difficult to process save as a nightmare we are trying to awake, so deeply depressing because it’s an information overload so very challenging even to process.  And at the same time as we are confronted with an apparent rise in deaths, just as tragically, we are at odds as a nation in coming to terms with what the “National Nightmare” of gun homicides means.

The suitability of the term, forty long years after President Gerald Ford hopefully declared “our long national nightmare is over” at his inauguration–a famously wishful declaration of a desired break with the past, trying to be auspicious and omitting any mention of Watergate–the wishful declaration of a turning point, as we were recently reminded, rings hollow some forty years later before the current nightmare from which we seem unable to awake.  For as we parse the rise of gun-use and firearm homicides, a subject we almost lack the means to address, turning points or chronologies seem sadly as useless as geographies, but confirm an undeniable progress to an ever expansive escalation of gun deaths on U.S. soil, that seem to stand in some relation to the increased terrorist attacks, but whose scale unprecedentedly grew since 2010 in ways that are not entirely easy to map onto global events–even despite the claims that the objectives and ambitions of ISIS terrorist groups have increasingly begun to stretch beyond territorial borders. Despite the the decrease of mass-shootings  during the ten-year ban on such rifles from 1994 to 2004, non-Islamic and Islamic extremists alike seem to have benefitted from access to guns:


Since 9:11

New York Times


It is understandable that we also turn to maps in hopes to process meaning in the face of an almost unexplainable epidemic of mass-killings.  But as we do so–tracking sites of deadly assault, tracking the provenance of the weapons and guns the killers used, or crowd-sourced online compilations of the truly staggering human toll in list form, we are apt to find that the raw data often speaks far more than cartographical forms can embody:


National Nightmare: Mapping Gun Homicides per 100,000 in nations


Why does this stuff continue, relentlessly, to happen?  A global comparison of firearm homicides within developed nations may not be exact or be a map.  But it suggests a staggering need to reduce the rates of gun homicides in both public and private spaces, and the specific challenges of disentangling access to guns to the language of rights with which it has been deeply if deceptively conflated.

The bar graph positioning the United States as far off the charts raises questions not only about the access to guns in the US, but raises questions about the value of continuing to map the distribution of gun homicides in the country–although their remapping provides something of a mirror that can only compel further reflection on the apparently increasing stubborn persistence of such an outlier status that seems daily to grow.  The bar graph raises questions about the increased occurrence attacks we have seen recently of heavily armed individual attackers or groups of individuals, which create a crowded litany of place-names immediately identified with premeditated mass-killings staged in schools, churches, centers of social services, or government agencies across the nation, even as little action seems able to be taken to stop the steady expansion of this list of memorials or access to guns–and worries have turned to the provision of expanded services of social and emotional health to process the proliferation of violence, as much as to better serve potential perpetrators of homicidal rampages–without ever addressing the problems of the all too easily obtained firearms, and the perverse notion deadly gunshot provide any statement save ending someone’s life.


13.  In an age when mass-killings have almost come to occur daily, even in the face of  calls for better mental health services for all, it’s hard to know how these levels of violence can actually be processed–not only by children, teenagers, and even adults, but most of society.  The recurrence of public mass-shootings almost suggest a new normal, where the majority of the victims were completely unarmed–even if it is a normal President Obama implores we collectively refuse to accept.

Although gun attacks on  Planned Parenthood office remain relatively rare, despite the daily threats under which clinics across America live, the acknowledgment of the occurrence of firearm assault as a forms of expression strains credibility–as if the public use of guns suggests a right worthy of defense.  And the terrifying entanglement between far right-wing rhetoric and gun  use cannot be continued to be dismissed out of hand since “speech does not breed violence;” because to do so conceals a more terrifying acceptance of gun violence as if it were a form of public speech–rather than an assault on human rights–and continued imprecations, even after mass-shootings, that “Now is not the time to call for law-abiding citizens to put down their guns,” as if more guns would secure greater safety and well-being.  There is nary a mention of the dangers of gun violence in the tweets by leading Republicans, beholden to NRA ratings, to suggest any restrictions on access to guns, lest they no longer secure “A-” grades from the overly powerful and deeply protective advocacy and lobbying body–the tweets couched a language in terms of comforting those “impacted” by the shooting (not killed) and offer prayers, thoughts, and condolences, but suggest the inability of framing any other response.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The stunning wall of evasive silence that is maddeningly maintained in these quite vacuous tweets reflects the immobility in political discourse to identify the problem as one of ready access to guns, lest they be seen as infringing on the Holly Grail of the Second Amendment, which seems for some more sacred than the United States Constitution.  The reflexive if actually inexplicable refusal to consider to fund research to be done on mass shootings, and the absence of even a budget for gun prevention in the CDC–who have nonetheless continued to tabulate gun fatalities–suggests the perils of the Manichean opposition created in political discourse between any questioning the motives for gun ownership and firearm use and the struggle to preserve gun “rights”–as if they were in fact in need of being legally protected and state-sanctioned.  Governor Chris Christie, currently seeking the White House, can only tweet about those “victimized” by shootings, rather than admit they were killed.


What are these rights to “bear arms?  The conflation of rights to possess firearms  with individual rights have been perilously distorted in public opinion, perhaps as dangerously as they have been rewritten by the courts.  For the tendency to assume such rights all too often goes unquestioned and is increasingly misunderstood.  With any analysis of gun violence presented as ac actual  attempt to infringe inalienable rights of gun possession that are posited to be enshrined in the law, there is a reluctance even to examine its origins:  the recalcitrance against even supporting studies even into risk/benefit analysis of domestic ownership of guns is taken to smack of poor governance and nefarious plots by the National Rifle Association, who discourage any research on the subject of gun use as an infringement on what seem sacrosanct rights to gun-ownership.  The fostering of deep fears of such infringement have gained legal cover, moreover, in a particularly willful misreading of the Second Amendment.  For the obstruction of legal response to the spread of gun-killings has deep roots in the perpetuation of the illusion of the legal exceptionalism of the United States.

Increasingly, a bizarre conflation of the right to possess guns and the acceptance of the firearm as a rightful means of expression seems to have crept into American political discourse in eery ways, and may underscore the clear illustration of such an outlier status, as much as any mapping of gun ownership or facilities in our country:  while Freedom of Speech is of course a right sanctioned by the framers of the nation’s Constitution, and indeed given a prominent position within the Bill of Rights.  Whether the Constitution so openly sanctions such a “right” is of course open to interpretation if not in doubt:  the conviction that it does so rests on the almost intentionally misguided perverse notion that the Second Amendment affirmed “bearing of arms” more than a “well-regulated militia” not only distorted the clear focus of the framers on the necessary possession of such a militia to “the security of a free State.”  Yet the apparent if unconscious absorption of possessing firearms into the Bill of Rights is not only an open distortion of constitutional law, but a justification of gun-owning in America, even in the face of mass-murders.  The perverse insistence on the ethics and safety of firearm possession guarantees open access to firearms in almost unfettered manner within the United States that seems to be increasingly exploited in tragic ways.

For the blatant and brazen misconstrual of the principal of individual gun-ownership as if it were a right has helped to sediment a misrepresentation of  meaning in state-protected rights, and a dangerous distortion in how rights are perceived and indeed defended that endanger human rights to safety and security–quite confoundingly, the very term that is so often cited in the defense of the “right” to bear arms.  Although dating from a very different era when militias were understood as local entities–rather than nationalized–little interpretive leeway or allowance was accorded its interpretation, so strong was the conviction that the right to arms remained a personal prerogative.  Rather, the reflexive conviction to affirm the right to possess firearms–“bear arms“–has become a disembodied imperative, removed from the discipline or order that a militia would provide, as Dorothy Samuels acutely observed, and taken as an individual prerogative never intended by the framers, and severed from the notion of anything “well-regulated” at all–even morphing into a form of protection against an untrusted state.

The slippery grounds connecting unfettered access to guns as a primordial “right” the state must be prevented from interfering or regulating has created increased contortions of logic that strain credulity in political discourse. The near-impossibility to invoke “security” as a reason for the widespread owning and general access to firearms–witness the mental gymnastics both Ben Carson and Ted Cruz have performed around the old but untired argument that greater gun-possession would increase safety against “lone wolf attackers” and better those besieged by such rogue actors, warranting gun safety education in public schools, if not gun training–may conceal a hideous deeper conflation between the Second and First Amendment in the minds of some.  The misconstrual of liberties sometimes seems to underlie the tortured discourse about the need for protection of rights to gun ownership–and perhaps an initial mental block to framing coherent arguments about access to guns in an uncontrolled market, or even dialogue about preventive measures of gun use–and derives from mistaken acceptance that gun ownership belongs in the Bill of Rights that makes it so difficult to historicize the meaning of the Second Amendment.

12.  Perhaps we don’t even gain much by mapping  the increase of gun violence that we’ve seen, which roughly corresponds, it at first seems, to population concentration.  For the terrifying transformation of the map of the country into something that might be more familiar on a firing range than infographic:

Shooting Tracker


Despite value and clear ethical import of counting each and every life lost and individual wounded by the surplus of guns across the country, the additive summary of individual events has limited coherence save as a tragedy.

There is indeed a clear cognitive rebuff of such a visualization of multiple woundings and killings by firearms that challenges the logic of mapping; the limited clarity or coherence can be gained by trying to locate the expansion of gun use through so much of the country on a map, save to illustrate the expansive nature of its threat to public safety:  what all too often seems at stake in the demand to have unfettered access to guns that are able to be readily loaded and not dismantled without restraint seems to rest not on legal precedent or logic but the national imaginary of the gunslinger, and indeed the place of the lone avenger, as much as the concerns for safety that the Framers somewhat cautiously voiced.  Perhaps the blood-splatter symbology used by the Gun Violence Archive, who’ve daily tracked 48,348 incidents of gun violence, and promise new and comprehensive pictures of gun-related violence, is most apt in  inviting us to comprehend the jaw-dropping totality of lost lives:


blood splatter map

Gun Violence Archive


Such maps however don’t make much sense, because they offer such little access for viewers to their motives, into the circumstances where and when and among whom they occur, or purchase on the ways folks found their guns and the ease of their acquisition of firearms.  Where they long possessed, or acquired for a premeditated event?  Perhaps this doesn’t make a difference to its scope.

The difficulty and deep frustration of successfully processing any clear sense of the frequency of occurrence of gun killings across the country is intensified by the blurring of concentric circles and oblique markers of at least ten homicides color the map by a confusion of different hues of blue, crowding the national map with spate of a density we cannot even unpack, even if its bluntness raises clear questions about frequent arguments about the safety that owning guns provides.  The inability to drill down in the map allows only limited cognitive access.


Mapping the Dead


The admirably ethical project to provide an actual record of the recent devastating progress of gun-deaths across the country–as the comprehensive Gun Violence Archive project–overwhelm viewers in their deadening additive accumulation of shootings, if desensitization lies farthest from their planners’ intent.  In tracking deaths by fire-arms since the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred in Newtown, CT the non-profit created a sort of watchdog online archive in 2012 that was soon so cluttered to be taken down at the end of the following year, after clocking 12,042 without a sign of deceleration in sight.  The map still strains credibility:   limited to  the top 1,000 locations of gun-related homicides to retain legibility, it rendered opaque many of the twelve larger urban centers of gun deaths.  The mapping became a meme of sorts, however, in attempts to understand what was going on, although the map lacks much coherence. And while the darkening of most of the country reveals a spate of deaths to be standard across 46 states and Washington, D.C. it is troubling that Florida, Illinois and California compete for the most gun killings.


OSM deaths 12,042.png


14.  There are some serious problems with the above maps, however, both as a visualization whose very symbology is so overwhelmed with the current the level of violence that it conceals, as if to create increased distance between the viewer and a disturbing landscape of lethal homicides that so frustratingly seems a data overload almost impossible to process or embody in a map.

For in toting up statistics of those felled by guns as if challenge viewers to comprehend what seems to track an actual epidemic or the spread of a miasmatic force that swallows centers of habitation–althouth the point of the onslaught is effectively made–it is a pity we don’t map the actual demographics of those with guns, what sort of past history or licenses they have to own guns, how they acquired them, or the role of hate crimes and emotional states of the perpetrator of such acts of violence, if only to help better comprehend and represent what is actually going on.   And the recent increase of intensity in the frequency of mass-shootings, which are now so uneasily discussed to be referred to simply by the sites of their locations–


Time Between Mass Shootings


–have so crowded news headlines so that we hardly have time to mourn the victims of one event before we are presented with another set of images of bloodied shirts, vacant faces, and memorials once again.

We are all fearful and uncomfortably present at the image of lives lost and families ruined, or fatherless children, that the devastating progress of untimely if largely unintentional deaths have led us to despair:  our public imaginary is tethered to the image of a quite different sense of freedom of gun ownership as one of security that is terrifyingly difficult to dimension on a moral canvas, however, even though the sneaking suspicion that the mythology of gunslinging has helped confuse the Second Amendment with the First, as “keep and bear arms” seemed an expressive act, as much as a phrase whose actual meaning can be more properly historicized, as Justice John Paul Stevens has aptly noted, to describe taking part in the military, rather than acting as a vigilante.  Yet the possession of the gun is a particularly haunting presence that now seems to have come to define individual liberty by the fantasia regularly disseminated in film–






–where the geography of guns, marksmanship, and ammunition suggests an almost primordial relation to space, as well as to taking justice into one’s own hands in a landscape already crowded by dangerous guns.


Good v. Bad.png

Marvel Comics

The image of the slayer in video games is but an updating of this primordial image of the individual avenger who takes justice into his own hands.

Call-of-Duty-video-game-Activision-325x195Call of Duty


This imaginary landscape that includes an avenger who has separated themselves from civil society has so solidified that the terrible option of taking violence and justice–even if this also means taking death–into one’s own hands, has paralleled the proliferation of mass shootings:  if some 30,000 lives are ended due to gunshot each year in the United States of America, and we continue to refuse to curtail access to guns or short-term bans of firearms sales or even something so sensible as individual background checks.  But do we misunderstand the debate on gun ownership by removing it from the human rights affront it is?

Although it is impossible to chart motivations for gun ownership, of course, or the emotional states in which guns arrive in the hands of the perpetrators of crimes and assaults by firearms, the increased attachment of ownership to liberty in public discourse is particularly troubling.  For the defense for gun ownership and sales far less reinforces the safety of a militia, but echoes a disturbing notion of self-expression, all too eerily illustrated by Robert L. Dear Jr.’s so very, very, very misguided utterance to police of those four words in the public record, which may provide the clearest insight we will probably ever have into his actual intent, if it can ever be comprehended.

And while such mass-killings are perhaps quite different forms of assault and gun use, the access to guns and their presence in civil life is credibly tied to the defense of gun ownership as a right–although the proponents of rights to gun possession of course clearly don’t see their own stance in relation to the recent expansion of such mass-attacks they also wish to contain.   Yet the relation between gun-use is difficult to see as only arriving from outside the country, and unable to be contained by our laws.  We can see where Colorado indeed clearly lies–like Newtown–far outside the zone where the greatest number of firearms in circulation or possession lie, as is the contiguity of regions where the greatest share of the population possesses guns–or is known to possess firearms–might seem to paradoxically lie outside of those places where by far the greatest fatalities from firearms, as if this would mean that the open possession of firearms indeed could provide a reliable measure of collective security.




But a map cannot really ever explain the conflation of a gun and a tool of public expression, and only reflects the accuracy of licensing or reporting, or indeed readiness to self-report registered firearms.  The problem of access to guns undoubtedly lies partly also in those unreported firearms.


15.  The deep tragedy of the association of firearms and freedom–and this persistently seems to include, in a bizarrely never-intended way, if one impossible to banish from the collective imaginary, to a freedom of personal expression–seems to map onto an expansive notion of freedom that it was never actually meant to carry or enjoy, but which attempts to restrict or curtail gun-ownership, since constitutionally enshrined by the Roberts court, in what can only be described as “faux originalism” of Justices, as it was by Richard Posner, is far more than a judicial distortion or cynical half-truth, but feeds a slew of related half-truths that are all too tacitly consented to be disseminated in public life.   For the distortion of removing the right of individual ownership from regulation of a militia  in defense of local liberties, the question of individual ownership has both groundlessly but all that inexplicably become a Holy Grail, ready to be wildly misconstrued as a deeply uncivil sort of right among libertarians.

The divide of sites where one feels justified in owning firearms is stark.  It is somewhat surprisingly far removed from urban populations, where the densest number of gun-related homicides occur; the landscape of gun-caused deaths seems surprisingly distinct, with the exception of southern states, but such maps speak more to the openness of a culture of owning guns.  They raise questions about what leads gun ownership to be identified with something like a liberty–or what it would look like to remove guns from their current conflation of anything like a liberty.  The investment in guns in poorer states is astounding if one looks at the extremes, as do low rates of gun ownership in more populated areas.




The culture of gun violence is in many ways quiet distinct from such measures of ownership, if one maps rates of death by firearm across the lower forty-eight or fifty states, though the prevalence of gun ownership in the deep south–Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama–raises questions; the entire country seems heated up with high levels of homicides, in the parsing that Richard Florida offer almost a decade ago in an attempt to measure, grosso modo, the contribution of stricter gun control laws to death by gunfire soon before the Supreme Court issued a ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that effectively enshrined the right to “bear arms” across the land as something that should occur without federal oversight:


Deaths by Firearm:100000

The Atlantic/City Lab


Although Florida seemed only too pleased to find a correlation between lower gun violence in those states where one sees a greater presence of his fabled “creative class,” this seems almost a red herring in comparison to the presence of even a single law on the books that was related to restrictions on carrying firearms, trigger locks, or safe storage practices–Florida found some negative correlations in those states that enacted bans on assault weapons (-.45) or mandated safe storage requirements (-.48).


Just one Firearm Law

The Atlantic/City Lab


But the notion of a “Geography of Gun Deaths” can hardly be explained by looking for correlations to other statistics.  It just doesn’t make sense, in part, since the circumstances that permit these trips into firearm homicides is sanctioned by a permissiveness of the market, and the broad access to a fantasy that gun access has benefits, which is difficult to geographically locate after all, so much as it is to find across the country.   And a lining up of numbers of death just plain ignores questions of population density-as if presence of deaths per 100,000 can be uniformly colored by state, rather than reflecting the breakdown at the level of county residents, where a similar, but far more disconcerting record of the lack of clear variations that might be explained by local laws, and provides a far more accurate break-down of collective rates of gun mortality in the nation, 2004-2010, whose variations demand to be viewed as a web-map, designed by CartoDB, individuating death rate, homicide rate, and suicide rate across the lower forty-eight and drilling far more deeply into CDC’s actual data, rather than trying to impose our notions of coherence on it:

Gun Deaths:Graves

Mark Graves Design



The distribution of collective deaths by firearms per 100,000 in county level across six years provides a startlingly shaper different distribution:


Grave Scale

Graves' COuntryMark Graves Design

Drilling down a bit to the southern and western states, we can see some huge cultural divergences, less present by cutting across state lines, and which many urban centers seem relative outposts of tranquility, lying far below the median-level of gun deaths:


Gunshots in the Southern StatesMark Graves Design


Or the western states, where wide open regions removed from cities are unpredictably dense in deaths by firearms:


Old WestMark Graves Design


The more elegant data visualization importantly disabuses viewers of a habitual focus on urban cities as sites studded with gun homicides–and calls attention to the deeper question of where folks think of themselves as being safer with guns in their possession, by highlighting the more rural areas, often of lower density population, where firearms may be more seen as forms of safety and security, and apparently are more readily used.  Rather than see urban violence in cities as the source or center of firearm fatalities, if they ever indeed were, areas as Wyoming, Idaho, parts of Nevada, non-urban Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, and southern Utah, as much as Chicago, are centers of gun deaths, and firearm homicides in Chicago have declined.


Firearm homicide chart

What does that mean?

The category of “states,” as Florida should be the first to admit, are less meaningful guidelines to gun-deaths, or the grim landscape of fatalities, even if they provide the jurisdictional filter to try to control the availability and circulation of arms.  It may be helpful to see the extent to which overlays line up with firearm deaths less as a cause, of a marked decrease of deaths due to firearms, than a shifting cultural topography in relation to the possession of the gun:  the refusal to pass any such restrictions, one could as plausibly argue, seems most prevalent in those very regions and areas where the recourse to firearms seems accepted as if it were a right.  For even though the laws are most often designed to protect children from gunfire–rather than curtail gun use–this seems to suggest an acceptance of the need in a specific case for gun laws to preserve fundamental human rights, rather than the civil protection of public security that we increasingly seem to need.

Indeed, rather than seeking spatial coherence in a culture of firearms that seems less spatially coherent than conceptually powerful, it might make sense to abandon the use of a geographical map to seek spatial correlations in a dilemma that is more national than local or regional, even if plagued by some deep regional differences ad divides:


Gun Ownsership:Deaths


The correlation, not so surprisingly, is pretty clear.  Parsed only slightly differently than Graves, and also viewed over a ten year period, a grim vision of the firearm deaths per 100,000 emerges, which suggests the deeper extent of a readiness for individual recourse to guns in the greater part of the nation, including  terrifying persistently increasing suicide rates by firearms that one can only attribute to increased access to guns–an increased danger if you have a gun that few gun owners confront.




Hawaii remains the clear outlier with the lowest rates of firearm injuries–suggesting that if we might look for a model of well-being, it would be furthest away from the country–though New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey appear relatively low in national context.  The large numbers of gun fatalities, which in 2007 killed over 10 per 100,000 residents, rose to 21.7 in Washington, D.C., perhaps justifying a new notion of how guns would relate to public safety after all.  Poverty levels have the clearest correlation with deadly assault with firearms.   And the majority of victims of violence were women, often in domestic rather than public settings.  But what does the geographic distribution of murders tell us, given that the density of homicides–or mass-murders–is less the point than their occurrence?


16.  The more such killings and mass-killings appear to multiply, perhaps intensified by the barrage of media images and banner headlines that consume our diminished attention and place new demands upon whatever comprehension we might be able to gain, the weaker seems the validity of letting American legal exceptionalism perpetuate the conflation of individual rights with gun ownership in our collective imaginary.  Indeed, the very claims of exceptionalism of the defense of gun ownership within a “Bill of Rights” creates a distortion of the very reasons for owning a gun, and indeed the associations that one should attach to gun-ownership–as much as safety:  gun owners remain far more likely to kill themselves intentionally, and increases the chances of gun-related accidents.

But the global graphic of homicide rates, more broadly construed world wide, may provide something of a useful touchstone in resetting the place of America in the world.  It interestingly expands homicides to different weapon types, parsing the globe by assailants’ weapon of choice.  To be sure, the US is embarrassingly first, suggesting its greater normalization of recourse to weapons to perform aggression, and surpasses any other country in the world in assault by a sharp object (dark green) or other means (green), even though gun-related deaths in specific inflate U.S. homicide rates to so tragically numbing a state of extreme exceptionalism.


Deaths ranking global

 Global Burden of Disease Study



Filed under data aggregation, data visualization, Gun Control, Mass Shootings, National Rifle Association, public health

The New Xenophobia

One of the scarier consequences of the Paris Terror Attacks are the waves of renewed xenophobia that have swept Europe’s already seething right wing, and somewhat surprisingly travelled across the Atlantic.  The suicide bombings by jihadis were widely mapped in Paris at first, in attempts to comprehend the coordinated suicide bombings and sites at which terrorists struck with AK47’s and Kalshnikovs in quite shocking near-simultaneity.  (Coordination of the attacks, which claimed 130 lives, and left 368 wounded, undoubtedly increased their terror, and eerily echoed the parallel hijacking of planes on September 11, 2001, in suggesting vulnerability and geographic reach of an unseen network.)

The transformation of reflexive spontaneous public displays mourning the victims or in solidarity with migrants have all too rapidly been replaced in many European cities, as if leading us through a looking glass, into nationalist protests of anti-migrant sentiment, channeling fears that have grown with threats of another attack into neo-nationalist sentiments–as if governments had failed to defend public safety, following on the immediate declaration of a state of emergency, closing of borders, and multiplication of police raids.  The initial reflexive show of widespread solidarity of mourning and commemoration at the unprecedented attacks appeared to heal profound shock and disbelief at the murders at outdoor restaurants and night clubs in Paris and attempted assassinations at a soccer stadium attended by the President of the Republic outside the city.   Those public displays of sentiment contrasted sharply to how the deadly attacks have fed a new xenophobia in Europe and America, and a deep suspicion of the “other” of the refugee–now increasingly suspected of disguising their own ties to terrorist cells.  If these protests appears–inadequately–to orient and focus fears of further terror attacks of such terrifying scale, they suggest the disorientation before the shock of the Paris attacks, if not outright cynical deception.  After ISIS claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks,  President Hollande’s immediate declaration that ‘France is at war prepared the stage for a rhetoric of opposition evoking George W. Bush’s declaration of a clash of civilizations, giving broader circulation to a misguided concept first theorized by Samuel P. Huntington, but that gained startling currency to justify the so-called war on terror:  it returned as a master-narrative of global oppositions reduced to the easiest alterity of us v. them and cast less in terms of law than religion; if it was readily reclaimed by ISIS news releases to magnify the actions of a group of attackers resident in Belgium who were second-and third-generation immigrants, the group of plotters was not based in Syria.

Despite clearly harmful over-simplifications in so faulty an opposition, the narrative have mobilized unjustified fears of infiltration removed from evidence:  mapping ties between ISIS and the perpetrators of the attacks shifted nefariously to mapping terror onto Syrian refugees.  Only three days after shock and outpouring of global sympathy to shootings that left 129 dead in six simultaneously timed attacks in the city’s center, fears of infiltration of displaced Syrian refugees by ISIS terrorist cells have gained unprecedented currency based on only the flimsiest of circumstantial proofs.  It is as if this responds to the relative inadequacy and failure of efforts to comprehend the plight or the scope of needs of Syrian refugees, and shock at the use of military-grade weapons in civil spaces.  Many of the multiple attackers in fact held French or Belgian nationality, and for disaffected underemployed Europeans living in the Brussels’ district of Molenbeek and other poor urban neighborhoods, the Islamic State appears to have exercised a particular appeal.  And although the attacks were coordinated by the Belgian ISIS Lieutenant  Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who sought to impress higher ups with a devastating attack in France, the group of terrorists and gunmen, if many were trained in Syria, are poorly mapped onto Syrians writ large, even if they were adept in evading security forces at airports and in cars.  For despite his presence in every available database of terror, Abaaoud evaded suspicion, as did other Paris plotters and Belgian jihadists, who had sequestered large amounts of triacetonea triperoxide explosives and automatic explosives.  The danger of terrorist threats and operations is profoundly mis-mapped and poorly apprehended as originating abroad, even if Abaaoud was indeed eager to “do jihad”:   ISIS propaganda has lavished praise on the “eight knights” for having “brought Paris down to its knees” but increasing evidence points to local coordination of the attacks, most probably planned and executed by a contingent of Europeans.  Yet rather than being coordinated at a remove from secretive locations in Pakistan, Syria, or Yemen, as Al Quaeda, European residents who joined ISIS have apparently hatched plots of their own–as firing automatics at close range in a concert hall or stadium–that reflect ISIS’ increased exploitation of social media and crowd funding to attract jihadis eager to pose beside the black ISIS flag.



From ISIS’ online recruiting magazine, Dabiq

The topography of the Paris attacks is increasingly reveled to have unfolded in the changing urban sociology of European cities in France and Belgium, and neighborhoods plagued by high unemployment rates and disaffected youth as St. Denis and Molenbeek; although some suspects have indeed traveled to Syria, they are removed from a central command, and seem to have enacted their own fantasies of violence in crowded public spaces (a rock arena and soccer stadium), rather than being orchestrated from abroad as the French President Hollande has asserted: indeed, despite the target of ISIS’s Syrian de facto capital, many of the ISIS higher ups have left the city long ago, and bombs are focussed, it is argued, on empty lots.  The perpetrators are among thee roughly one thousand French citizens and six hundred Germans who have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State; over 3,000 Europeans committed to jihad, attracted in part by IS’s increasingly effective use of the internet as a recruitment and fundraising tool, as well as for diffusing a call to jihad.


1. It is striking how public spectacles of collective mourning have rapidly mutated into frustration to contain deep fears of where terrorists might strike, and desperation at the unexpected attacks–even as parallel protests have occurred sympathetic to the plight of refugees.

The government’s official denunciation of attacks as “planned in Syria” have justified airstrikes against the Syrian capital of the Islamic State, led to over 600 raids and numerous house arrests across France, and increased visible military presence in much of the nation.  French President François Hollande’s involvement of the army across the country “confirms we are at war“–as is, by extension, suddenly, much of the world.  The absence of the face of the “enemy” has led concern to be projected upon the next potentially scary suspect, in an attempt to contain fears of repeat attacks, with the whereabouts of their actual coordinator unknown.  We assume that it must be contained in fixed border, and arrive from a place that lies far outside the boundaries of the European Union.


Islamic State's Frontier


Yet if France is at war, where’s the enemy?  Molenbeek?  The problem of mapping the threat has provided substantiation of deeper fears of the arrival of terror cells in the European Union’s borders whose provenance was limited to the Middle East is no longer tenable, and the bombing of unidentified targets in Syria may not even be an adequate response to a network of men in their late twenties or early thirties, mostly petty criminals, who are presumed to have recently traveled to Syria.  Even if their radicalization occurred in Syria, they are not refugees.


Molenbeek detail

New York Times


The lack of clear compass to where the enemy exists has made the apparent insinuation of terrorism into the European Union so startling that a finger has been quite deceptively pointed toward refugees.  A similar lack of knowledge and growing fears of further attacks have come to justify an unprecedented public expansion of xenophobic protests calling for a rethinking of the European Union’s previous decision to admit refugees.  These protests, stoked by threats of continued terror attacks, mirror a broad attack on outside, external forces as if they have indeed coordinated the vicious jihadi attacks, and the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa constitutes an odd localization of the the terrorist threat.  Bombings have been unleashed against northern Syria, announced to be in retaliation, concentrated in the operational capital of the Islamic State, have been concentrated on its outskirts.  Even in the face of evidence locating coordination of attacks in Paris among local jihadis, the unprecedented intensification of anti-migrant rhetoric across Europe mismaps and exploits the danger of further jihadi attacks in irresponsible ways, largely because of the discovery of a Syrian passport near the corpse of one suicide bomber in the Paris attacks at the Stade de Paris.


Bataclan Concert before Attack:Marion Ruszniewski:Agence France Presse.pngMarion Ruszniewski/Agence France Presse


The Syrian refugee crisis has already provoked severe human rights violations, from sequestrations and confinements to arrests and strip-searches, and numbering, dehumanizing displaced refugees who try to enter Europe in search of residence and work.  The renewed currency of ties between terror and migrants have also led American politicians eager to find common ground to condemn Barack Obama’s offers of asylum within the United States to those displaced–as if it constituted a heedless abetting of the spread of terror attacks, mirroring inflated anti-refugee rhetoric throughout the European Union.  The wholesale borrowing of such groundless charges from right wing European parties is a particularly toxic manifestation of anti-Islamic xenophobia, transported by means of tweets and social media, and giving rise to a melding of anti-immigrant xenophobia and nationalism that attract an inverse demographic than protests welcoming immigrants in recent months, demanding their repatriation and literally cloaking themselves in regional nationalisms.




Russia Today

Pelagics Protest


The protest of Germans anointing themselves as “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” hearken back to visions of oppositional political history framed by Karl Schmitt in the Nazi period.  The pressure they have put on Germany’s continued promises to resettle refugees has forced its Minster of Justice, Heiko Maas, to caution against equating refugees with terrorists, and affirm the absence of any actual ties between Syrian migrants and the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, and the EU to tighten security on the boundaries on the Schengen region.

The actual geography on the ground hasn’t at all changed.  But the links already insinuated between hidden terrorist cells and Syrian refugees have materialized as a rationale for collectively turning our backs on the growing refugee crisis as if our actual well being and survival depended on it–and the acceptance of refugees has provided an entry point of sleeper cells who may execute similar attacks.  As the manhunt for the terrorists who committed the atrocities has expanded, waves of panic have spread, stoked by accusations that resemble a witch craze, as the association of migrants and terrorists has virally mutated not only in Europe, but migrated across the Atlantic to the United States, in ways that stand to infect political discourse and debate.  The recent reassessment of how open America’s doors would remain to refugees–and absurd request for assurances that none would engage in “terroristic activity,” as Greg Abbot of Texas put it, or, as Senator John McCain glibly demanded, while defending migrant asylum, that “there’s a process that prohibits any kind of infiltration like we’ve just seen in Paris,” entirely misses the point.  And they stand to expand the waiting-time to process Syrian refugees in the United States beyond the  18 to 24 months now required, and hamstring plans to grant 10,000 refugees asylum in 2016–by requiring the heads of the FBI and Secretary of Homeland Security to personally approve each refugee for entrance, radically reworking practices of processing Syrian and Iraqi refugees at a crucial and sensitive time.

The discovery of a passport of the Syrian Ahmad Almohammad, who entered Europe from the island of Leros in Greece and the traversed the Balkans, near one site of terrorist attack offered circumstantial evidence but needed grist to identify refugees who have arrived in Europe with feared terrorist groups.  Links between ISIS terrorists and Syrians refugees in Europe acquired the sort of substantiation which politicians believed to exist, even if they were not searching for them.  Although no previous proofs of actual connections exist that could have prevented the Paris attacks, the fingerprints of one of the suicide bombers on a Syrian passport has suddenly substantiated fears of terrorist infiltration of groups of millions of undocumented refugees.  Such identifying signs, no doubt since they provide the archetypical clues for how the police have apprehended and identified criminals, offer the needed grist for inflammatory ties between national security and displaced Syrian migrants and substantiating long latent xenophobic fears.  The documented passage of the holder of the passport through the Greek island of Leros tied to the cluster of deadly attacks under the name Ahmad Almohammad suddenly offered possible grounds to fear potential infiltration by Islamic State operatives among the 1.5 millions displaced entering Europe from Turkey–even though the other perpetrators were of longstanding European residence, including a French national and Belgian resident.  The poor sense of the geography of terror is to blame.  For even the discovery of the even crudest hand-drawn map of a route from Turkey through Greece and Hungary to Germany provokes speculation about terrorist plots.  Suspicions of the presence 4,000 “covert gunmen” in Europe have been stoked by ISIS videos promising further attacks, and led refugees to be stopped on suspicion in Turkish port cities.

Ahmad was clearly not the ringleader of the operations–local police finger the Belgian-born jihadist Abdelhamid Abaaoud–but the apparent presence of a Syrian refugee at a site of terror has provided the needed catalyst for expanding increasingly inflammatory rhetoric linking jihadi terrorism to Syrian refugees, despite the unfounded nature of these links.  The potential links of terrorist threats and the arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe has been often cited by countries than had already built barbed wire fences in order to discourage the arrival and block the progress of Syrian refugees across the Balkans in the Schengen region.  The border barriers built in Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria and Croatia served as physical barriers to transit points of entrance to the Schengen area of passport-free travel–





But the identification of the fingerprints–regarded as a clue that conceals the illogical association of guilt with all refugees from the region to seek a home in Europe–has become grounds to criticize whatever agreement existed for resettling refugees within the European Union.

And so, three days after outbursts of sympathy and horror at the Paris shootings, panic has been fostered about the fear for admitting terrorists disguised as refugees and displaced.  European nations from Poland to Czechoslovakia, a nation already eager to turn away refugees from its borders, and a rousing chorus of tweets from others to close their borders in the light of terror attacks for which ISIS claimed responsibility,–by linking the danger of the further attacks that ISIS has promised to the presence of refugees within their borders, as if accepting refugees constituted surefire vulnerability to further attacks.  But even closing borders won’t help stave off the attacks that ISIS promises would be repeated, though the reflexive agenda of far-right politicians in Europe–and, shortly after, in the U.S.–has been surprisingly swift.  Poland provided one of the easiest cases for accepting this policy, its new right-wing government having been elected on a platform of anti-migrant platform.  Such right-wing opponents of accepting refugees have even found recognition and previously implausible legitimacy as defenders of the common good:  they obscure the fact that such home-grown jihadis originate in districts of European cities with unemployment rates exceeds 30%.


The Paris attacks may have broken a delicately negotiated managed solution to a growing crisis, despite the reluctance of Austria, Hungary, and other nations.  Only shortly after the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, instituted an emergency quota system to spread the admittance of an expanding number of refugees who entered the Schengen region among EU member states and their neighbors–requiring almost all of the member states to welcome a total of 160,000 people–the Paris attacks that claimed 129 victims have provided a pretext for Europeans as the incoming Polish president or Slovakia’s government to bend to popular protests against the acceptance of immigrants from Syria and the Middle East.  (None other than the now-cranky Lech Walesa has reared his head again as a nationalist spokesperson, asking the world “to remember that Poland has been transitioning from communism for only 25 years.”)  Yet the market has little to do with the rampant xenophobia nourished in anti-migrant marches in Polish cities, which have prominently included emblems of explicit nationalist protectionism.

But the Euroscepticism of several incoming conservative governments has relished in having found new fodder for their claims.  Just after an equably distribution of refugees among Europeans seemed reached, the shock of processing the terrible deaths of innocent civilians in Paris seems to have helped redraw the map again, giving far-right European politicians from Marine Le Pen–tweeting an “immediate halt to all intake of migrants in France”–and Poland’s European Affairs Minister Konrad Symanskic, with Viktor Orbán not far behind, occasion to tweet about the need to close borders to prevent unsubstantiated fears of terrorist infiltration.  Even in France, where President Hollande had recently if only grudgingly decided to accept 24,000 displaced refugees over two years, the readiness to evoke fears of admitting unwanted terror cells give expression and justification to longstanding deeply-seated anti-migrant and -immigrant attitudes that have been suddenly given a new boost by conservative social media.

While Facebook unveiled the Safety Check app to alert friends ‘I’m Safe’ just after the Paris shootings, post-shooting tweets have disseminated particularly dangerous rallying cries from the right on social media.  The rage of tweets from members of the radical right from Filip Dewinter of the Flemish secessionist Vlaams Belsang party to Nigel Farage of England’s UKIP echoed the decision another Eurosceptic, Poland’s Foreign Minister, to use the events to revise his nation’s policy toward migrants.  The tragedy has sadly provoked the weirder, post-tragedy tragedy of making it even harder for refugees to be accepted in Europe who are fleeing ongoing civil war, even as that war seems to have visited Europe.  The New Xenophobia is of the most dangerous sort–a xenophobia prominently rooted in the fear of enemy agents potentially destabilizing the nation, based on linking the displaced to the most nightmarish event visited on a nation for several years.  The new xenophobia stigmatizes the humane acceptance of displaced migrants based on the paranoid fear that displaced migrants, rather than seeking asylum, seek to attack our security and our cities and our homes.

The stoking of all this barely logical fear has, back in our own country, somehow swiftly set the stage for the weirdly unpredicted closing of ranks that Presidential candidate Donald Trump couldn’t have possibly foreseen himself.  But it stands to add an element of distinct charm to the presidential race:   for in the face of President Obama’s humane decision to multiply the number of accepted refugees accepted by the United States from Syria five-fold, a strikingly cynical consensus has emerged among American republicans in the wake of the Paris tragedy that state governors must act as federalist sheriffs to protect the country, and refuse the entry to displaced Syrian refugees which Obama had earlier promised.  If Donald Trump has taken the opportunity to impugn the President’ sanity as much as his foreign policy choices–


IMpugn sanity


–other candidates have not hesitated to broadcast their own readiness, unlike the President, by implication, to protect similar tragedies in the United States, and rather put at risk the hopes of entry of the 30,000 refugees that the United States government promised  it would soon increase from 70,000.  Indeed, the strike in Paris, claimed to be the proportional equivalent of the Twin Towers’ destruction in New York City back in 2001, and “France’s 9/11,” has led Republicans to direct renewed attacks on President Obama’s offer to resettle a small share of the refugee crisis to be equated with putting Americans at risk.

And so, just three days after the terror attack in Paris, Texas’ Governor, Greg Abbott, took it upon himself to write a letter informing President Obama that, given his experience in dealing with the dangers of migrant crises and immigrant threats, and the foiling of an ISIS-related terrorist attack, and by extension his greater familiarity with terrorist threats, he would refuse to allow Syrians to be placed in the state he represented, and called on the President to “halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States,” given the possible danger that they pose to the country.  The chorus of Republican governors, from Bobby Jindal’s advice of prudence to Charlie Barker of Massachusetts, to Chris Christie of New Jersey, seemed an attempt to drown out the airwaves after shock over the terror attack.  The bizarre move imitated far-right European parties again evoked the degree of “unacceptable peril” Republicans have long liked to Obama’s presidency, rather than any material threat.  But within a few days, sympathy was overwhelmed by isolationism, as the television news network CNN trumpeted in banner headlines that governors of over half of the states in the union–twenty-seven states–have unilaterally refused to accept Syrian refugees, although the position has limited if any legal ground, in ways that have been imitated by a spate of Republican presidential candidates eager to prove their executive abilities.  All have been magically transformed, including Jindal, into foreign policy experts.


CNN No Refugees.png



The map of those still honoring their commitments to accept displaced refugees struggling to find homes appear to be in the vast minority–five states that seem almost foolhardy embraces of national vulnerability, from Vermont to Pennsylvania to Colorado and Washington, against the dominating common sense of declaring closed doors to the displaced.  When placed in context of nearly five million Syrian refugees  displaced truth, of course, regions of the United States have hardly absorbed their share–and those states whose governors were so quick to condemn the possibly plausible terrorist ties of refugees from Syria or Iraq had admitted far fewer than 300 or 250 refugees since 2011 at most:  their governors seem to be showing their own ignorance by taking such a broad stance.


a pittance of refugees in US

The map of those local Republicans who took it upon themselves to retract any offer of resettlement to all displaced Syrians–by far the greatest majority of refugees who left homes with hopes to resettle in Europe–seems not only an eager posing as patriots, or launch grenades at the existing foreign policy of the Obama White House yet again, but reveals an unforeseen opportunism as well as little familiarity with the workings of the federal government:  those most quick to reject entry to refugees as if this were within their competence responded to the fears of their own constituents, or so it looks in the below visualization printed by the New York Times–the graphic may not map clearly onto where displaced Syrians have been relocated or placed, but to the demographics that local politicians seek to reach.   The declaration spread like a meme, at any rate, over the airwaves of the United States, alerting constituents that their immediate governors would not place them at risk–as, by implication, the folly of the President had, and Hillary Clinton and the Democrats had been uniformly duped to advocate.  And it is not a surprise, to enter the world of the archeology of data visualizations, that they mirror those states that reject the federal government’s expansion of Health Reform.


Access to health care--insurance

And so, the entire party has been associated with irresponsibility, and the other accepted xenophobia as the cry of the day. Quickly, not only Donald Trump but Marco Rubio and Chris Christie and Ted Cruz have joined in calling for shutting the borders to the displaced, and Bobby Jindal can appear a model of executive authority–whose deeply felt opinions illustrate little familiarity with constitutional law or Geneva Conventions.



What Governors Draw line at Syrian Refugees?

New York Times


The opportune nature of such a quick in-step realignment of the debate about immigration took up its lines went without much comment.  But it unsurprisingly seems to replicate opportune lines of political pandering at its worst:  if it was the ultimate insult to most refugees, and the perhaps poorest forms of protection mirrored political opportunism below the historical 48th in the United States parallel that so sadly seems to continue to divide north and south, and have little correspondence to the areas where most of Syrian extraction live–or Syrian refugees have been placed by the US Government since 2012, and mirror the red/blue divide, as configured in these cartograms reflecting the electoral results of Presidential elections of 2004 (state by state) and 2012 (county by county).


Shaded Cartogram 2012.jpg

What do they have in mind?  Out-Trumping Trump?  Winning, more likely, or hoping to do so by stoking fears and bringing them to the surface again.

For the close-minded knee-jerk refusal stokes the most unfounded fears in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks that we are all vulnerable:  and to pretend we are living in the shadow of 9/11, when Republicans once unbelievably came to be improperly equated with protecting our nation’s safety and common good, and to wallow in complete amnesia by bandying about the word “terrorism,” ISIS, and “terror attack” with undue frequency to suggest the benefits of responsibly closing our frontiers.  The good old days.




Filed under Clash of Civilizations, ISIS, Paris Terror Attacks, refugee crisis, refugees, social media, Syrian refugees

The Less Visible Paths of Economic Giving

At the same time as Pope Francis elegantly entreats all to view the world less through the distortions of economic markets–and without forgetting those who are all too often overlooked–we rightly grapple with ways of imagining global inequalities, working to view the world less in terms of economic markets of commercial exchange or banking centers.  For Francis asks us to find a way to map the debt the producers of greenhouse gases owe to developing countries, lest their weight fall on poorer countries, rather than industrialized countries bearing their cost, and as well as a way of correcting the usurious rates of lending money, by guarding against those “oppressive lending systems . . . which generate further poverty.”  The United Nations served as the  setting to stage a dramatically and radically revised ” Urbi et orbi” address by the first transatlantic pontiff, and one deeply conscious of that status.  Francis enjoined us to imagine a common good–chastened by the harms of seeing social needs only in terms of economics.  The moral injunction to consider the deepening economic imbalances of national debt recalls the difficulties of picturing a more equal and more ethical distribution of space, taking stock of the globalized world outside dominant patterns of economic exchange.

If oppressive systems of lending create states mired in relatively equally distributed poverty, and others increasingly less egalitarian–as JapanSouth Africa and the United States–poorer individuals or countries all too easily fall through the cracks and off the mental map that privileges dominant economies.  Indeed, so obsessed have we become with noting, accepting, and internalizing property lines that we seem trapped into forgotting the actual distribution of inequalities in our country.  The warping of economic conditions in the United States alone–a warping toxic for local politics, and compassion–are nicely illustrated in microcosm in a glorious if grotesque GIF Max Galko offered, via Metrocosm.  In its warping of a planimetric image of national space, it seeks to track the terribly troubling distortion of civic space by wickedly substituting residential values on land to reveal hypertrophied concentrations of capital in a few regions—mapping value onto land in ways that display the drastic diminution of housing stock in far more regions of the lower forty-eight that contract out of sight.


Metrocosm, based on data from US Census and Lincoln Institute of Land Policy


The bloated property values of urban and exurban areas are hardly signs of a healthily beating heart, but a Rabelasian image–if it weren’t also such a very accurate illustration of our current national political quagmire of using a map to create consensus when concentrations of wealth looks so different than the one which determines our representational government, and a clear social commentary and scathing socioeconomic critique.  For how can we create a clearer map of priorities, when the very levelness of a playing field is so distorted beyond recognition?  The cartographical contraction of so many areas that seem overlooked seems also a metaphor, as tNew York City, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Orange County and Chicago acquire hideously gargantuan proportions to seem countries of their own, as they assume their relative values of residential properties, leaving the majority of the country to disappear within the folds of their overvaluation and market-driven expansion, as if to show the difficulty with which market valuation maps onto our own space.  All this to raise questions of how a map of global economic relations might best begun to be traced, or how we might imagine the disruptive inequality on our perceptions of space–and, indeed, the inequalities that spatial orders increasingly come to reflect and perpetuate?

Does this image of a “beating” heart only map the absence of empathy in a map?

1.  For economic exchanges seem strikingly complicit in perpetuating inequalities, if only by diminishing those very inequities of economic productivity perpetuated in most maps fail to adequately attend or obscure.  One might hope, with geographer Andrew Linford, and Martin Lewis, the benefits of a map illuminating the inequities of global disparities in economic productivity–and try to use such a map to address how both regional and national disparities, often oddly dividing coastal areas from poorer interiors, might be overcome, and the ways that what pass as concerted attempts to do so often only shore them up. But such a map only confirms the sorts of distortions that most are only too aware already exist.

GDP Density

Geocurrents global  map of GDP Density (2011)

The illusion of equality is more often maintained by the belief that by mapping all aspects of the earth we are ensuring a sense of equality for all, or allowing no inequities to be hidden from view–as if the projects of world-mapping, and exposing to the public eye, is a means of responding to global needs–rather than obscuring these inequalities.

2.  Or can this even be captured in a map?  It bears noting that even if we have a totalistic map of global coverage, we tend to not come to terms with the depth of inequities and wealth, so obsessed we’ve become with what we can record as if it was a picture of the status quo.  In an age where outfits like Planet Labs or their friendly competitors at DigitalGlobe readily provide satellite-generated images that map the surface of the earth from space for their client base at an astounding resolution of two to three meters, what’s being mapped omits the truly important transactions, exchanges, money-laundering, and other financial transactions that underlie the ever more globalized economy.  Even as the platforms of Geo Big Data may appear comprehensive in detail, the undercurrents of these claims provokes questions about what they fail to communicate. Perhaps the very promise of totality for such claims of whole-Earth imagery–to be sure, at lower resolution for the state of Israel, by a ‘flock’ of “Dove” Satellites–only confirms that the real action lies elsewhere:  maybe in those shifting currents less readily subject to be seen, tracked or so readily surveyed, as much as on the edges of urban and rural life.  After all, if one accepts a uniform mathematical grid as a way of mapping, one omits any local knowledge of place, andy any notion of representation.

Satellite Dove

There must be more that resists such ready capture–from the rampant inequalities of wealth that organize our cities to the disparities of wealth around the world.  What other underground streams of electronic or financial transfers can we trace?  These streams constitute the new mare nostrum, the non-territorial terrain on which both worldly power and economic activities are waged, and run across the boundaries of either a settled or defined geopolitical space.  But the space of climate change is one that is best rendered as transcending a map of territorial bounds or geopolitical space that is rooted in the antiquated notion of “countries,” which not only seem increasingly removed from our planet’s fate–

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.21.05 PM

–but from it’s actual experience.

3.  The map “Money Trails” traces the actual paths of the disbursement of funds by the UN, World Bank, and 11 industrialized nations to reveal the distortion of global ties transcending geopolitical space.  So much seems revealed in the major unmapped pathways that structure our increasingly disturbingly decentered globe–which infographic artist Haisam Hussein used to map the distribution “foreign aid” in the pastel hues and curving bars reminiscent of the London Tube Map that the engineer Harry Beck so cleverly devised on the model of a simple circuit board–but which suggest a decentered lack of familiarity, and raise the stakes on processing how foreign aid is allocated, as much as to explain the circulation of funds with an air of transparency.


Lapham’s Quarterly

Hussein’s uncanny infographic tacitly calls attention to the status of Aid as an artifact of the Western World (to which Beck so clearly belonged), even if the destinations of most of the billions tend to arrive at destinations whose open circles peripheral to or far outside the west, from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Brazil, Kenya or the West Bank–as well as India and Ethiopia.  Beck’s design had once simplified the confusion that Londoners faced in confronting underground routes by simplifying the Tub to a circuit’s dense pathways in ways riders quickly came to disentangle:


What does it mean for huge sums of foreign aid to travel as they do, through such sanctioned if somehow secret hidden pathways of economic exchange?  Can one begin to disentangle their distribution by different agencies and governments, and the parallels sources of foreign aid dispatched to those needy, or to enter into a logic of their distribution?  Can one ever expect the distribution of Foreign Aid to run along such clearly defined pathways?

4.  In an age where the vast majority of financial transactions occur online and data centers channel chains of information with increasing speed, the paths of financial transactions are rarely transparently mapped.  Although we accept multiple ways of mapping and surveilling the world, but mapping the global exchange of money and financial assistance are less clearly established–if only because the mobility of money presents far less easy or a static image and is less about clear relations between place than often undisclosed channels of exchange.  If we know the GDP of different countries, national debt, global debt, or even map government debt as a percentage of GDP–we can rank countries’ relative consciousness of balance of payments, or the ability with which debt is able to be sustained, while those deepest crimson threaten to drop from view or implode:


Such a static distribution of debt offers a basis not to consider the distribution of productivity; it describes the ability of countries to carry debt even if carrying this load provides the basis to perpetuate their global roles.

The basis for understanding the circulation of money around the globe raise questions of the continued relevance of connectivity, distribution, and indeed the privileged point of orientation to the circulation of power.  For a map that privileges clear boundary lines of jurisdiction serves to regard each nation as an autonomous economic actor, but in an era of the paperless transaction of funds, the map that continues to privilege territoriality seems not only out of date, but increasingly irrelevant to describing the process of globalization.

One might also see the development of aid as a holding pattern or mode for tacitly creating consensus and uniting an increasingly uneven playing field of the economic state of play.  If empires were once seen as controlling the sea and mapping control of navigational spaces, the notion of the “Freedom of Seas” or Mare Liberum that Grotius proposed as the basis for mercantilism in the early seventeenth century have long ceased to be the basis or the illustration of imperial mandates:  whereas the concept of the Freedom of the Seas was in ways an extension of ancient Romans’ control over the Mediterranean, the ocean is no longer the screen to project projects of dominion than are the pathways of aid whose currents more aptly flow from centers of geopolitical power–and can only be mapped in far more fractured, and indeed postmodern, globalist terms, where economic aid is tied to the opening of markets as well as political ties–and might be far more challenging to map.  The sea is no longer the primary surface of economic exchange, and the relatively recent migration of monetary exchanges onto virtual space poses unique challenges to trace.

The less visible pathways and more visible tentacles by which foreign aid is dispensed may not only lend coherence to our national markets, despite the dramatic inequalities that continue to exist across the inhabited world–the expansion of aid may indeed make it ethically and conscionably possible to live in its huge differences of well-being and lifestyles that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise ignore.  An astounding $530 billion was informally sent, through unofficial channels, by immigrants, in 2012, according to the World Bank, in ways that might represent the economy of a sizable nation–and a huge uptick over the $132 billion sent in 2011.  The pathways of finance suggest a new model of global circulation of giving and receiving that offers something like an underlayer of the global economy.

Migrant money graphic.jpg

As of 2006, the money sent home from industrialized countries in the form of individual remittances was for the most part (outside of Africa) significantly larger than the official development assistance and foreign aid worldwide, according to the World Bank, whose donor countries commit to sustainable development or poverty reduction in ways that provide a plan for dealing with economic disparities.


But the dramatic expansion of foreign aid far more often travels along official currents, supported by a logic that demands some excavation of internationalist motivations that transcend mere economic need.

5.  While the notion of Christian charity was long linked to the local public use of personal wealth, as upper-class Roman elites gave money as they wanted to civic causes in much of Europe and North Africa, the flows of philanthropy that have been increasingly institutionalized have become ever more difficult to trace and complex to map as foreign aid has tried to reduce growing income disparities worldwide.  Giving is institutionalized by governments–and by United Nations organizations with the World Bank and their non-profit NGO allies, but mapping flows of philanthropy are far from the sorts of local giving of the past.  Increasingly mediated by non-national entities, the flow of funds in an era of global cash flows and transfers is increasingly dematerialized or immaterial, even when growing to the inconceivable amount of $160 Billion.

Perhaps rendering them concretely provokes more surprise than recognition as the courses of capital are remapped on a geographical projection.  And when Haisam Hussein chose to map trails of foreign aid against the famous transit map of a city once the financial center of world markets, as if to map the spatial contraction of the global economy to several principal routes of financial disbursement, the map suggests not only the mobility of money, but the degree to which the major economies like the United states and Japan, as well as Norway, Sweden, England, Germany, France, Australia and Canada pump money into a global system of credit that sustain global markets, helped primarily by the World Bank, and basically bankrolled by eleven nations, including Japan, Canada, the US, Britain, Sweden, Australia, Russia and South Korea–who exclude the “other area,” left grey on the map, of the People’s Republic of China.

Money Trails and UN

Lapham’s Quarterly

The money flows are modernistically represented as if to show the progressive possibilities of aid in streamlined terms, the distribution is at the same time  in no way equal and strikingly disproportionate and the larger flows of aid dissonantly disruptive of the modernistic design–the pathways of economic aid are clearly and lopsidedly dominated by the nations of the northern hemisphere.  Despite the modernism of the routes, the disproportionate paths on which aid travels disrupts the symmetry of its so sleek tube lines, as distortedly large baby blue rivers dominate the map as they flow from Japan beside yellow-gold currents from the United States, reminding one of the deeply engrained national inequalities that underpin much “giving” today–and dazzling us with an array of colors and flows that leads us almost to forget the global presence of the PRC, or the grey persistence of global poverty.

But the selective nature of support seems particularly striking–with, as of 2013, the UK tied to Pakistan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the US to Kenya, Gaza and the West Bank, and Afghanistan, Australia to its neighbors Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, Norway to Brazil, and France to Myanmar and Morocco.  The routes for disbursing foreign aid are hardly a process of global circulation, but provide something like a strategy for promoting the possible circulation of global funds.


Lapham’s Quarterly

The circulation of “aid” is in part a sort of shadow-map that helps shore up and support the  US military’s presence.  The spread of what seems an extended carte blanche to settle the US military in bases abroad has grown steadily since World War II, and has currently grown to spread to over 800 foreign bases in 160 other countries and territories outside the United States–excluding Afghanistan and Iraq, sustained at a cost of over $156 Billion annually.  The current constellation of what Chalmers Johnson called “base world”–a parallel imaging of military extraterritoriality–of which the Pentagon lists not only 174 US “base sites” in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea, but hundreds more in around 80 countries, including Bahrain, Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, and Qatar:  if those countries colored bright red are hosting actual basis, those in purple are hosting US troops, and those in dark blue are countries where the US government is currently negotiating the presence of troops, and the rare spots of a lighter shade of blue mark those with “no evident” US military presence–limited to Mongolia, Tibet, Burma, North Korea and Iran, and the northern and central Africa nations of Libya, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.  (But one never knows.)


While one might rightly wonder why the army, navy, and marines are based so widely over an “empire of bases,” the cost to the government is no doubt not only expressed in the cost of running the bases that are outposts of Americana where one would think oneself to be geographically removed.

A closer look at those sites of centers of active duty of US soldiers–not including the recent theaters of war of Afghanistan and Iraq–shows a diaspora of bases across the globe that the Department of Defense sustains, allowing the US to have a greater presence worldwide than any actual nation, empire, or people, in seems the underside of globalization, as well as the fantasy of a paranoid extra-national archipelago of active duty that may respond to a vision of global danger:

Active Duty Map

Is foreign economic “aid” somehow a tacitly understood bribe to continue to tolerate such an expansive military presence, or to negotiate with nations for the possibility of securing a future base, or some other sort of economic open-ness?  Is it an excuse to overcome resistance to perpetuating ongoing military presences, or a new way of strategically and cynically waging a global war of chess?

Hosting US Bases

The image of active duty soldiers settled in bases across what might be called Eurasia reveals an often unmapped constellation of sites of settlement, far different from the cities that usually appear on a political atlas or any map.

Active Duty in EurASIA

6.  The World Bank does not primarily speak, despite what its name might assure us, for the world, and may charge usurious fees, but a counter-geography suggest the limits of the pathways Hussein so cleverly mapped from a first-world perspective.

For an unspoken and often ignored “other map” of economic aid, as well as, perhaps, of the “soft money” that allows military and economic expansion, flows not from the World Bank or United States, of course, but from China–all too absent from our own eyes, much as the very same region of the world is so conspicuously absent from maps of Facebook “friending” and “likes” in ways that makes one smirk with superiority at the eerily blacked-out region of a world otherwise illuminated by “friendships” and photo exchange.  The same area not so oddly omitted from the map of global foreign aid, since it is not our aid or the sort of aid sought to be mapped, is actually of course not nearly so passive, or lacking networks of giving.  Although Facebook’s ““Friendship Map” tracks networking, as much as it registers an increasingly vibrant emotional pulse of the digital culture of linking that grips much the globe, leaves a blank space of seep blue or empty lacuna in tracing over 1.5 billion friendships–half of its users have successfully “friended” over 200 other users.  The largest hole of social network gapes over China–though one still can’t really expunge its territory from a map–although the map only reflects individual and collective investment in social media.


Global visualisation of every connection between two people on Facebook

Perhaps the map is far more distorting than admit it to be.

In the more real world of global finances, funding provides an image of governmentally that reigns in the massive economic disequilibria around the world at at time of dramatically curtailed prosperity.  China’s foreign aid reveals distinctly different paths of money to North Korea, Srl Lanka, Sub-Saharan Africa–including Ethiopia and Sierra Leone–and Ecuador; aid is proffered with quite different degrees of riskiness, in ways that suggest the large number of risky bets that China seems to be making in “foreign investment”–described here as something unlike and distinct from “aid” or charitable giving, but as something of a gambit of clearly strategic scope of investing in future markets or potential future sources of food:

China's investment and riskiness of its investing

New York Times

Yet the degree of cumulative investment deserves attention as an alternate visualization of globalization that is not scary, but nonetheless can’t help but be salutary at least in illustrating global imbalances as a counterpoint:
China's Investment, 2005-13:NYT

One can further profitably compare this to the aggregate numbers of Chinese exports and imports go, to see its economy’s global reach, and ask why the range of its “giving” or aid is ommited from the above map–in ways that suggests the degrees of strings attached to it.  The size of exports suggests a complementary set of ties to areas in Europe, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, as well as Australia and South Africa, where a smaller degree of aid arrives–no doubt with invisible strings of its own implicitly attached.

Value of Chinese Imports and Exports Worldwide 2015Value of Chinese Imports and Exports Worldwide 2015New York Times

These somewhat silent and far less evident paths of “giving” and GDP, as well as export values, seek to map a more dynamic image of the current state-of-play of globalization as a sort of state of flux, even if its economic ecosystem is all too often obscured, but also a screen for introspection of the proportions of globalization and its sins.  After all, whoever gives themselves the mantle of global authority most convincingly seems to get to draw the map. Or to decide that it might be time to reconsider the current map of giving, and foreign aid.


Filed under Foreign Aid, globalization, infographics, mapping economic inequalities

Fenced In/Forced Out: On the Uncertain Fate of the Refugees Kept Outside of Hungary’s Borders

The coils of razor-wire lain by a rag-tag group of workforce workers atop the thirteen-and-a-half meter high fences to define Hungary’s southern border formed a barrier against those who have fled the Syrian civil war.  As much as blocking those attempting passage across the border, what is a personal pet project and crusade of Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, seems an attempt to inject vigor into the Hungarian strongman’s flagging political career, as much as to create fear.  Since Orbán’s public promise in mid-June to construct a fence that defined Hungary as Europe’s frontier to mid-September, made mostly by state-paid workers, created a sufficiently imposing fence to close the country’s border with Serbia.  The fence has come to symbolize the tragic plight and obstruction faced by refugees who took a humanitarian corridor across the Balkans on foot or by car to enter Schengen countries, and present them face-to-face with an unexpected obstruction that would define Hungary’s integrity.

The fence topped with razor wire and manned by improvised forces of military policing has become a notorious national symbol reveals the blatant disregard for human rights in a time of increased humanitarian crisis.  It rests on a deeply misguided mapping of the bounds of “Europe,” an entity under increasing pressure, now understood more as an employment zone than a geographic entity.  The state police who ask refugees to apply for asylum at the newly prominent border as they wait in “transit zone” create a spectacle for Hungarians as much as for the global news.  The liberal use of concertina wire along one hundred and ten miles (one hundred and seventy-five km), topped by security cameras and surrounded by border guards, created a newly militarized space–whose relation to an earlier “iron curtain” by no means lost on bloggers, and clearly evoked an earlier sense of a work-camp.

The eagerness with which Orbán promoted and adopted the project of border boundary building may originate in the somewhat liminal geographic situation of Hungary in Europe, but the viciousness of the enterprise reflects Orbán’s increasing desperation–and that of his nationalist anti-immigrant FIDESZ party–makes due on his promise to Hungarian voters to act as defenders against the imagined enemy of “migrants” entering the country, to inflate its power by bolstering its own borders in increasingly militaristic terms.  For while the construction of the wall is indeed part of an increasing construction of fences, border barriers and border controls that have emerged across central Europe to repel an increasingly desperate attempt of refugees to enter Europe, and find employment and safety in the Schengen region, the decision to construct such a brutal wall complete with “transit zones” to process refugees may be understood as having its origins in the grotesque theater of Hungarian politics:  although the decision to erect the wall along Serbia’s frontier may precipitate a crisis in refugee flows, it has origins in the willingness of the current Hungarian government to act as the defender of an imagined “European” identity–as evidenced in its blame of the European Union itself for not clearly formulating a plan or policy to deal with refugees, and to assign soldiers along European borders to process human rights migrants.  And as winter descends along a well trodden “West Balkan route” of travel, migrants face new dangers that demand a humanitarian response.  For the dramatic expansion of an even larger two-hundred-and-sixteen-mile long fence topped with razor wire along Hungary’s border with Croatian frontier in mid-October promises to interrupt refugees’ movement on an established West Balkan route, but create a backup that would constitute and even more shameless affront to global human rights and an affront to their actual plight.  Orbán has portrayed the entrance of migrants as an offense against Hungary’s frontiers in manipulative ways.

In ways which will have quite steep consequences for the actual fates of many refugees in Europe, constructing so prominent a wall is a bizarre exercise both in Hungarian historical memory, and a posturing of a a local strongman who seeks to represent a global crisis through the distorted lens of purely local terms to Hungarians, in what he paints on a global stage as a crisis in European identity.  Orbán has quite outrageously called for “defending the common borders of the European Union with European forces,” but blocking the transit of refugees–or quarantining the newly arrived in euphemistically dubbed “transit zones”–will not intimidate them or prevent their arrival in Europe, but only reroute them, and delay or divert any successful humanitarian strategy from being effectively framed.


This makes the pretense of acting as a defender of Europe all the more outrageous.

1. Although the wall was ostensibly built to protect Hungarians from the arrival of refugees, the symbolically powerful wall across the Hungarian border has become an attempt to preserve the strength of Hungary’s government against a largely imaginary enemy.  While few refugees hope to settle in the country permanently, the border-fence is a particularly tragic rewriting for the start of the twenty-first century of Marx’s bold statement at the start of The Eighteenth Brumaire that figures and personages of history not only often repeat, as Hegel believed, but do so first as tragedy and then as farce–if the farce is poised to precipitate an international human rights tragedy of its own.  For the walls evokes historical memories for Hungarians and for Europeans as an assertion of the right of state, even as it seems staged a spectacle to illustrate the strength of the Hungarian state to ward off an entirely imagined enemy, and aggressively grandstand on an international stage in myopic ways.

For if the actual iron curtain was dauntingly divisive, the rather hastily erected fence nominally sought to prevent the arrival of refugees, far less impermeable for desperate refugees than an illustration of the Hungarian government’s resistance to allow progress across a Balkan passage, than notice of the government’s open disregard for their rights.  Refugees are penned like animals along the fences congruent with national borders, rather being than extended asylum or offered any needed humanitarian assistance or refuge.  The building of the border barrier by conscripted labor–as much a police–the border boundary is more of a declaration, and a site for exhuming memories–both of the electric wire fences taken down along the Hungarian-Czech border in 1989-90, pictured below, retained when the fall of an “iron curtain” was celebrated–with far more violence than that longstanding boundary barrier.  Indeed, the sole surviving fragment of that border is far less  threatening than the new barbed wire barrier that was ostensibly built to block entry of the destitute into Hungarian lands.



Along Bulgarian-Turkish Border, July 17, 2015 (REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov)

The fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border was allegedly constructed only after Orbán declared himself open to consider all options which could stop the flow of refugees into Hungary short of physical closure of the border, after discussions with Serbia.  Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó mustered the declaration that he  believed that its planned construction would not violate international accords or laws–yet it is truly hard to even imagine how he thought it did not, and was quickly recognized in Budapest to be a somewhat ghastly public unthinkable refashioning of the Hungarian state.


Budapest Beacon (June, 2015)

Beyond obstructing or refusing entrance of those who have travelled from former homes through crowded refugee camps in Turkey and Greece, recast refugees fleeing destruction in Syria and Iran as criminals.  For as well as a means of preventing passage across borders, the notorious construction of the border fence is particularly opportunistic move of Prime Minister Orbán:  constructing such imposing border fences cynically re-regulates the very legal procedures to which asylum-seekers are forced to submit.  Is the recent rehabilitation of this oldest and most authoritarian of fictions of national identity not the most reactionary of performances of national exclusion?

Kelebia FenceTriple Concertina-Wire Fence at Hungary’s Serbian Border near Kelebia (Photo: Freedom House)

The geographical location and situation of the imposing border fence have been mapped multiple times in the news as an obstacle to the northward progress of “thousands of migrants and refugees”, and portrayed as a crisis in European unity as Germany and other countries ordered temporary border restrictions.  But the fences that run across Hungary’s borders are less often examined as a dangerous psychological projection of the Orbán government’s loose understanding of legality and manipulation of national identity.  For the increasingly militarized boundary fence not only traces the border barrier around Hungary.  It translates the mapped boundary line into an impassible frontier, surrounded by resettlement camps, which effectively places refugees outside both the status quo and apart from the state.

Has the marginalization of refugees along Hungary’s borders also become an occasion for recovering memories of the marginalization of populations in Hungarian politics, most recently the Roma people and other immigrants?  The patrolled barrier on Hungary’s southern border ostensibly responds to fears of an “endless flow” of illegal immigration which Prime Minister Orbán warns would threaten to “overrun” Europe.  By militarizing the border barrier on its southern border, the Hungarian government ostensibly seeks to defend its protection of its citizens, but also allows itself to charge refugees with violating local laws and protocols in ways that disrespect international law.  Since the fence was completed on September 15, Prime Minister Orbán’s priority recasts him a strongman able to protect the country and defend the state.  The barrier offers Hungary’s government the excuse to punish attempted crossings with three years of imprisonment and automatic deportation.

This haunting but perverse image of the reception of migrants–at a time when Hungarians view emigration as a more dangerous threat to the nation than immigration or the arrival of new and potentially skilled workers–offers an illustration of the strength of the nation and the extent to which the nation will go in taking strong mesures against an imaged enemy.  For in  refusing entry to refugees as they seek to enter the European Union, confining them in “transit zones” sealed off from Hungarian territory, but open to Serbia, Orbán’s government turns the other face to many without medical, legal, or financial assistance.


2.  By declaring “a state of emergency due to mass migration,” that expands police rights to stop suspected “illegal” refugees, the Orbán government has rewritten the rules refugees follow while authorities decide asylum applications and decide who can be admitted to Hungarian territory:  hence the need for the fence.  (The decisions are unilaterally made without possibility of appeal.)

The barrier quarantines those pleading from asylum on the margins of the country through which they desire passage. Does the fence, patrolled by police and the state army, not provide an image of the defense of the nation where one lacked before, blocking transit across a route where some 170,000 refugees have already entered the EU this year?  The militaristic maneuver seems a show of force disproportionate to, as does the recent dispatching of armored vehicles and hundreds of troops to its Croatian border.  In undermining the most central values of granting asylum that most all European Union countries affirm, dehumanizing refugees as the new target of xenophobic accusations recasts their plight as a disturbance to the state.  And in using national workers to create this boundary barrier, as an artificial boundary of the state, the Orban government could be accused of reallocating funds that the EU had in fact provided his country.


Hungarian Border near the village of Horgos, Serbia; September 15, 2015 (The Independent)

Even if it is not the impermeable boundary it has been touted–

across the fence? Under it?

Near Röske, Csaba Segesvari (AFP/Getty Images)

What role does the fence serve in blocking refugees entrance to the Schengen countries where they have travelled in search of work?  Designating those who attempt to cross its borders as “illegal” dramatically reinforces regional ethnic prejudices, blaming those undocumented for their circumstances and alternately recasting their identities as muslims, opportunists and actual terrorists, the construction of border barriers crudely exploits the mapping of the national unity as a way to divide space and the flag as a threatening sign of national belonging.

3.  Hungary may lack prison space to accommodate refugees, but seeks to portray itself as able to manage the “crisis” of refugees’ arrival, choosing deportment while ignoring their presence or dilemma.  It is almost paradoxical that the insistence on protocols of boundary-crossing and legal procedure should be so strongly espoused by Prime Minister Orbán–who has regularly flouted and rewritten laws and the constitution, and attacks an independent judiciary.  For the Hungarian border barriers continue Orbán’s openly anti-democratic defense of the Hungarian “homeland” even as he flouted the many EU reprimands his government has already received.  Building the border wall offers a way to ignore global actualities even as refugees cannot continue to comprehend the interruption of their attempt to flee civil war.

Refugees from Turkey and Syria who have crossed the Balkans have been met by similar barriers along the borders of BulgariaSlovenia, Austria, Germany, and Macedonia, to be sure.  While Hungary insists, in double-speak fashion, it hasn’t betrayed the Schengen Accords allowing free transit, whereas border controls were thought dissolved by the European Union, they have returned with a vengeance, stranding many families and individuals in the non-places of airports, parking lots, and improvised camps guarded by attack dogs.  Current plans to expand similar fences and border barriers have spread to Serbia, Ukraine and Estonia, who see themselves as victims of Germany’s vice-chancellor promise to accept one million refugees and half a million yearly.  The fence has served to direct media attention at the problem of a refugees trying to enter western Europe, illustrating the reflexive response of a government providing similar fences of barbed wire on its borders with Romania and Croatia–lest Europe indeed be “over-run,” whatever being over-run by those on foot might mean.  Perhaps we have a failure to map their arrival less in terms of lines of sovereignty–and border fences–and governmentally than charting their painful itineraries.



The erection of such border fences on Europe’s edges echo a concept of state sovereignty that seems outdated at a time when the national protection of governments in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere no longer exists. Their creation on a map offer a truly paradoxical means and symbol to cynically assert his own authority, openly rebuking human rights traditions even as he shrouds himself with legitimacy, but has sanctioned the spread of similar frontiers that obstruct the local overland routes on which most refugees have travelled.


ˆNew York Times


By 2016, they had grown, and seemed to reflect not only growing xenophobic suspicions but a deep distrust that actual borders provided meaningful national frontiers, with the number of countries that had completed boundaries or planned to do so providing cordons against future travel that eerily illustrated the removal of the Iron Curtain:


European Fences

Economist:  January 7, 2006


And the world looked little different, as the reaction to growing global migration was to construct imposing walls to impede human motion:


Economist: border walls and fences.png

Economist:  January, 2006


The long-planned fence championed by the Orbán government as a response to the “mass-migration” of refugees seems to have sanctioned the “return of the long repressed.”  For it has given a green light to the proliferation of other border controls that constrain refugees’ movement as they search for safety and homes.  The effective obstruction refugees now face has redefined their movement as “illegal”–in ways, that, as Bill Frelick warned, create a categorical confusion that questions the value and rights of humans and transforms their movement across boarders into a punishable event.  If this seems to respond to the 85% jump in requests for asylum since 2014, mostly Syrians followed by Afghani, Albanians, and Iraqi, the abdication of actions of processing or accepting individuals in civil society intentionally marginalize refugees.  Even if Hungary is only a transit zone for these families of refugees, the construction of a fence responds to their arrival in ways that have only unleashed as a response latent xenophobic tendencies.

4.  As increasingly desperate and uneasy refugees walk on foot to reach the perpetually receeding illusion of the “rich EU”–many hoping to join their families–by foot, taxis, rented minibuses, trains, or through human traffickers, their searches for asylum are complicated by the relative nature of European prosperity in the poorer countries through which they travel.  After refugees and immigrants were granted asylum at rising rates in western Europe since 2010, Hungary has erected a militarized border against those forcibly displaced entering central Europe as if to distance the plight of those crossing the Balkans through Turkey and Greece from the mental space of Hungarians and portray their entrance into the country as a national danger–inordinately magnifying the role of Hungarian law on the already unduly onerous lives of refugees beyond what they ever expected.  The difficulty in mapping the numbers of those seeking asylum, and the difficulty of determining where increasingly desperate refugees might settle, complicate the inhuman exaggeration and magnification of the difficulties they pose to governments who may grant them asylum, as do the multiplication of dehumanizing metaphors of swarms of insects, tidal waves, a tsunami, herds of animals,  or indeed as an army convert the almost two million who have fled from Syria and live in refugee camps in Turkey.  Such metaphors certainly seem to sit well with the Hungarian government, who demolished neighborhoods where Roma live only to pay the cost of their reconstruction; other party members call for a ““final solution” for Roma in Hungary–even as the EU has both funneled money to Hungary to aid Roma and prioritized their integration in Hungarian society.

Are our very maps complicit in concretizing and perpetuating such dishonest and profoundly unuseful metaphors as they show the routes refugees take across the Balkans, and the exclusion from countries they confront?

Wa Po Migrant Routes around Hungary

refugee fences

New York Times

Since the now rightly notorious wall was completed on September 15, the Orbán government announced that any attempted crossing the border barrier by families and children will be punished by Hungarian law.  The continued “mass-migration” has led the Orbán government to declare a state of crisis in which it needs to defend its borders in ways that trump international law–and the rights of persecuted refugees arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, detaining them in “transit zones” controlled by military police.  If the fence responds to a crisis in governmentally–alleging that the river of refugees who have crossed the Balkans from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq were not displaced–the newly militarized borders of nations facing arriving refugees have cast themselves as victims of “mass-migration” by desperate people fleeing on foot; hastily erected fences are monitored by officers in riot gear, bearing ammunition, and water-guns, installing security cameras at a barrier they are investing a paranoid tenor with quite terrifying concreteness.

The chain-link fence topped by barbed wire and security cameras suggests a knee-jerk response to mass-migration with eery echoes of the past.  Hungary’s government has only proposed its rights to build analogous fences on the country’s borders with Croatia and Romania–even as UN officials and the UNHCR voiced dismay at the militarization of its southern borderline.  For while those seeking asylum view Hungary as a site of transit to Europe, and to a new home, this affirmation of local boundaries and exercise in territoriality places those following the hundreds of thousands who have already fled civil wars in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, in a sort of legal limbo of displacement unforeseen by countries who  became members in the Schengen Agreement promising unity to asylum requests.  Rather than grant asylum, the labelling of refugees as terrorists, criminals or violent, collectively not deserving entry, rehabilitated flimsy conceit of the border as impassible barrier.

state border



scale bar

The Guardian UK

Such widespread projects of constructing militarized border fences mark unprecedented local distortion of the thirty-first article of the Geneva Conventions.  The consensus of preventing punishment for refugees illegally entering any territory of a contracting State responded to an era of violence Europe sought to banish. But the barrier distorts Hungary’s place in the world, by treating those who seek passage through Hungarian lands as criminals who are to be kept at a gate.   While the Geneva Conventions affirmed rights for those with refugee status, without medical care or financial means. the criminalization of border-crossing lies not within any nation’s right to police its boundaries, as has many sustain in the United States, is an affront against humanity and international law.

So much is already apparent ent in locally-produced videos seeking to persuade refugees–here identified “illegal Immigrants”–to adopt alternate pathways for eventual asylum in Germany, across mine-filled Croatia:

Illegal Immigrants and You want to get to Germany

The Shortest Journey from Serbia

Do Not Trust the Lying Human Traffickers

The desire to shunt refugees through Croatia, rather than Hungarian lands, conceals the ugliest of inheritances in the Balkans–and its distinctive topography of active land mines blocking most paths and roads to Austria or to Zagreb.


The obstruction of the progress of landless refugees lacks any sense of the global dilemma we increasingly face.  For the notorious fence strikingly reveals how this oldest of designators of territoriality has been rehabilitated and so openly championed when the pathways of refugees across borders is both common and challenging to visualize–and distorts their plight as if it were a purely local affair of following procedures, but whose Kafkaesque character conceals a hatred fueled by xenophobia.

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations

“Global Trends in Displacement”/New York Times (based on UNHCR data from 2014)

Such authoritarian boundary-building is all too easily justified by ignorant questions of who deserves refugee status or which government is rightly tasked with processing petitions of asylum–even if Schengen accords clearly place that responsibility in the country of entrance, the massive movement of nationals across the Balkans was never imagined.  Rather than appreciate human displacement, the Hungarian decrees unilaterally police entrance into a region of passport-free travel by local law; those seeking asylum are “othered” as illegal, and deserving punishment, without recognition of their dire trajectories or desperate search for new homes:  labelled “migrants,” rather than refugees, those fleeing civil wars and destroyed states are portrayed as opportunistically seeking benefits and jobs–rather than the economic air political security that is their legal right.

As much as the arrival of refugees challenges a notion of governmentality, refugees are unfairly recast as offenders decorum who stand in violation of legal codes.  The argument for building boundaries on our borders to prevent human border-crossing is not without other precedents, as Americans well know–and are knee jerk responses to questions of governmentally, as much as they offer responses to human needs.  Is it a coincidence that the assertion of this imaginary borderline by an actual wall–similar to the fortified border barrier between the US and Mexico, lambasted by Vincente Fox as “disgraceful and shameful”?   President George W. Bush had prioritized the fence to prevent “illegal entrance” and immigration in 2001.  It has not prevented migrants from crossing–and, as Michael Dear noted, whatever deterrence of migration is created by the barrier, it can hardly justify the “enormous expense of maintaining the fortifications — estimated to be $6.5 billion over the next 20 years.”  But the game was always primarily political, and when it was resurrected in the first platform paper Donald Trump released for his presidential run, he cast the plan to expand the border barrier in particularly xenophobic terms–and may have led the hapless Scott Walker to continue the folly of drawing borders by casting wall-building on the US-Canada boundary as a “legitimate issue”.

The border barrier Orbán erected along Hungary’s southern frontier echoed that on the US-Mexico border, but averts eyes from the refugee crisis:  “Don’t come,” an aid to Orbán quipped, “because this route doesn’t lead where you want to go.”  “Don’t come here anymore,” chimed in Serbia’s Interior Minister, pressing his government’s control over passage; “This is not the road to Europe.”   Inhumane response almost taunt refugees–as liberal use of pepper spray, water canon and teargas against those who have tried to breach the barrier materialize these only slightly veiled threats.  The fence not only keeps out refugees, but imagines their distance from the Hungarian state, and indeed costs Hungary as a frontier of Europe–and a country of Christian Europeans.  Much as patrol agents prevent passage at the US-Mexican border, the border barrier distorts questions human rights by way of recasting them in terms of national defense, in ways far less constructive or considered response to human needs or occasion needing international cooperation.

The fence that several presidential candidates propose to further expand the fence that runs along a third of the boundary ignores that the fence’s ineffective role in stopping migrants than has the US Border Patrol–the border barrier has been ineffective in discouraging migration, although it has actually prevented migrants from returning to Mexico–expanding 83 miles of fenced border to militarized expanse of 700 miles at a cost of $2 billion.  The embrace in Hungary of fortifications that recalls the triple curling of concertina wire atop the US-Mexico fence at Tijuana “to make the border safe and secure” claimed to have reduced illegal border-crossings by 50% in 2008, forgoing the  “aesthetically pleasing” federal design standards used in other regions of the US-Mexico fence, the fence is a similarly foreboding remapping of the boundary line for visual effect in a new rallying cry.


Razor Wire Fence Patrolled along the US-Mexico Border


AP (2006)


Donald Trump’s logic that “A nation without borders is not a nation” seems adopted by the Orbán government’s actual plan.

The improvised barricade constructed iduring the summer of 2015 runs along Hungaryy’s southern border with Serbia seeks to create the absolute division one might read in a regional map.  But protection of the actual border may have somewhat less relevance to FIDESZ Prime Minister Orbán than the desire to appear strong in the face of the anti-migrant and anti-gypsy rhetoric he has profited from and continues to incite.  Orbán declared with mock magnanimity that “the tolerance period is over” for granting refugees asylum as it was erected, intentionally creating, seeking to “stir up popular sentiment against immigrants and refugees” by any means possible, observed Marta Pardavi.  Despite being a signatory to the Geneva Convention that makes it incumbent to accept refugees from war-torn lands, even to a country which sees itself as poor, the wall prevents recognition of refugees–each of whom the far-right-wing Jobbik party, which has portrayed the arrival of refugees as a failure in local governance, argues will cost Hungarians 4300 HUF daily, in a country where daily unemployment benefits for its citizens come to 2362 HUF.

In this politicized context, the plans for enforcing the construction of the fence along Serbia’s border primarily constituted a strong public statement.  The enforcement of the boundary barrier illustrates Orbán’s commitment to a distorted image of the Hungarian nation’s integrity, and suggesting his willingness to defend Europe from refugees who most saw as fleeing from their lands, but he portrayed as alien migrants.  After protesting delays in its construction, the deployment of troops to this newly militarized zone to stop those seeking transit to Europe creates fixed portals for processing people without according them human dignity, for the rationale that “They don’t look like people who could become useful members [of society].”  There is all too clear a danger that the refusal of Hungary’s Prime Minister and government to process refugees who seek asylum and have traveled across the Balkans on foot from Syria, Afghanistan, and also Iraq is an attempt to pander to the right-wing Jobbik party, who have consistently claimed and asserted that the current government will not be able to solve the refugee crisis as it has staged public anti-refugee rallies in Budapest that distort the dangers that the “migrant crisis” will cause the nation–and that Hungary’s current government fails to fully address.

The imagined dangers posed by such refugees, wrongly cast as opportunistic threats, or immigrants in search of work, uses the border from a map as a way to disengage from refugees’ actual plights.  (Indeed the unstinting support Hungary’s Foreign Minister voiced for Germany’s decision to start border controls on rail travel from Austria seems a poorly disguised attempt to unite Europe against the arrival of refugees.)  Meanwhile, alternative routes refugees might take to have been proliferating on social media.  Will the creation of such controls, now enacted by both the Netherlands and Slovakia and apparently being considered in Denmark, impel more human smuggling of refugees who are often both educated and able-bodied and even with cash reserves, and expand the humanitarian crisis of refugees?

Bulgarian Fence

Border Barrier Under Construction in Bulgaria

Has the Hungarian government’s sanctioning of the building of this fence from June 2015 given rise to a knee-jerk defense of territoriality?  Or has the fence also inspired a return of memories of strongmen from Hungary’s past?

The completed border fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia is more suitable for animal chattel to halt the progress men, families and children, and constitutes a new low point in local respect for human rights–oddly resonating with how members of Orbán’s party liken Roma people in Hungary to “animals” who are “not fit to live among people.”  As much as it reveals a panicked response to the global rise in refugees, the chain fence reveals the reluctance of Hungary’s government to confront the problem of refugees, and refuse, ostrich-like, to believe that problems might enter their own national space–a space from which Orbán’s circles have already expelled Roma.  The rhetoric of the wall closely mirrors the project of wall-building US Presidential candidate Donald Trump openly xenophobic proposal to extend a fence across the US-Mexican border to ward off the arrival of “criminal” Mexicans, as much as migrants in search of work who the wall originally targeted.  Indeed, the Orbán government’s “defense” of the boundaries to Schengen countries of the European Union both recalls the creation of an impermeable US-Mexican wall, 700 miles of which already exist–and uses the outdated nature of the national border despite the limited value of border patrols beyond public political posturing.

Is it only a coincidence that the strengthening of such walls parallel the vanishing of the frontiers and borders that once defined the imaginary integrity of the nation-state?  Both “walls” ignore the growing irrelevance of the borders in a global situation.  Both take refuge behind the most antiquated of artifacts:  indeed, the construction of such barriers only affirms the declining significance of the border as an actual divide, in the face of anxiety about the diminished meaning of national borderlines, and offers opportunities for photo-shots to affirm a national imaginary.  Is it only a coincidence that Trump trumpeted an expanded border barrier against the “extreme danger” of Mexican arrivals at the campaign stop he made at the border city of Loredo, TX, for the first time sporting a now-famous trucker hat bearing his campaign promise to restore America’s national greatness?

Trump's Promise

Donald Trump First Sports His Campaign Hat at the Border City of Loredo, TX

When the unlikely presidential candidate looked at the camera declaring that the future of the United States rested in extending border barriers along the entire US-Mexico boundary against “illegal” migrants, Trump unwittingly offered a defense that has been adopted by countries who take it upon themselves to militarize and police Europe’s borders.  As Trump espoused the expansion of border barriers that illustrate national sovereignty in an age that demands increasing international cooperation, the devotion of attention to the policing of boundaries comes at huge cost for addressing refugees’ actual needs.

5.  The Hungarian government has similarly linked the militarized border-zone built along its southern border to the preservation of its national identity.  The fence intentionally creates a no-man’s land and quasi-police state suspending human rights, filled with refugee camps which fail to help prioritize or meet individual needs, and dehumanize refugees, in the ugliest of illustrations of inhumane treatment at “migrant centers.”  For the razor-wire fence that traces Hungary’s southern border with Serbia seems both to be an abdication of legal responsibility and ethical obligation to those seeking asylum from war-torn nations–and a misguided local response to a global problem whose actual proportions it sadly seems to seek only to obscure.  As much as the wall on Hungary’s border has complicated questions of European unity and identity, it puts into crisis a coordinated response to the global problem of refugees.

As Hungarians seem to refuse to grant asylum as the first country in the Schengen area, where passport-free travel is allowed, it has offered a case where the global crisis of refugees in need of protection have been met by a hostility that treats their movement from shattered pasts as a threat to the civil society–and intentionally obscures the role of Hungary as a transit country.

adding razor wire

Hungarian Soldiers Building a Fence near Asotthalom, southern Hungary, on Aug. 30, 2015 (Xinhua/Attila Volgyi)

How did this come to be?  The border-fence built by Hungarian soldiers seems created to prevent any passage of refugees seeking asylum, but suggests a cynical exploitation of a global crisis.  Building an improvised wall of some one hundred and eight miles, complete with a public announcement that any damage to the temporary fence along Hungary’s Serbian border will be punished by imprisonment, is a theatrical attempt to refuse housing or accommodating the refugees who have travelled across the border since the Spring by foot.  For the highly staged building of a such a highly symbolically charged, breachable, and deeply inhumane metal-link fence–whose breaching will be punished, according to the books, by three years imprisonment.

For those seeking refuge from persecution are indeed regularly beaten by police as if they were criminals and left “in legal limbo” in Serbia and Macedonia, wbhie seeking asylum as they try to enter the European Union.  Refugees have been forced to face increasing barriers created to their entrance to Europe even as they are subject to routinized bad treatment and forced to negotiate police brutality on Europe’s borderlands.  “We are human too,” plead refugees, fearing state police.  Orbán’s fear that Hungary may receive some 800,000 asylum requests, and by “next year we will be talking about millions and this has no end,” has fomented xenophobia against refugees at significant human cost, and perversely magnified the problem of those seeking refugee status as a purely national problem at significant cost.

But the true disgrace, as the invocation of a line on a map–the line of the European Union–but is the last in a series of protective insular walls of small-minded construction.  It symbolizes a quite desperate and panicked attempt to keep reality at bay, in the perversely misguided belief that a truly global disaster could be either held at bay or flat-out locally denied.  But the arrogant assertion of the fence is far more emblematic of the hysteria that the Hungarian government seeks to stoke rather than it contains any legal justification.


At the same time as refugees seeking asylum have abandoned perilous transit across the Mediterranean, and were rebuffed by Iran, Hungary has become a default to enter the EU and area Schengen accords that permit travel without a passport.  Passage by the Balkans is now the recommended by smugglers as a route of transit–such smugglers seem to have a more clear map of the geography of displacement and challenges of asylum than even the UNHCR.  Although Hungary has received a significantly larger number of applications for asylum for refugee status by June, 2015, when Orbán announced the wall’s construction, the requests are merely a way to enter a new life in Europe–as all refugees are obligated to declare their status at a point of entry.  Rather than process those seeking asylum, the wire fence barrier is both a blatant and a cynical rebuff to human rights and legal rights, and an exercise of turning the other shoulder to those attempting passage.

The dedication of public funds to such a barrier seems a further violation of refugees’ legal rights, and constitutes a glaring slight to if not an actual crisis of international law.  The position adopted by Hungary’s FIDESZ government deeply distorts its position in relation to Europe and the world by casting the “crisis” in purely local terms–far beyond the practical difficulties of processing and registering refugees who cross its southern border with Serbia.  The distortion of a ‘local’ crisis created by “migrants” has led the government to use state radio and immigration police to use the border barrier to remove desperate global refugees from their own mental space.  The dangers distort precedents of anti-semitism and xenophobia that the government has long pandered:  indeed, the strongly anti-gypsy rhetoric Orbán’s party has recently exploited and normalized has been rapidly refashioned as Islamophobia, in ways that echoes the antisemitic rhetoric of one of Hungary’s pasts.

As much as the fence reflects an actual rise of immigrants with Hungary as their destination, the figures of those seeing asylum in Hungary  the wall is part of a highly choreographed if misguided moment to rebuff refugees that will allow his xenophobic FIDESZ government to prevent refugees from entering the attention of the government–and claim to represent not only the Hungarian people, but by arrogant and increasingly evidently self-important assumption, all Europe.  As the Balkan route of refugees grows, even as the rights of refugees fail to be adequately defended, a renewed on-foot march of refugees to Austria and beyond has resumed.  Even as a refugee policy is not clearly in place.  Illustrating belonging and its boundaries is what the Hungarian government’s spectacle seems chiefly to address and to do in particularly terrifying terms.  The severely imposing barricade (or fence) constructed from June is the latest attempt to prevent refugees who have travelled from Syria and elsewhere from crossing the frontier–although their suggestion of a fence more worthy of animal pens than humans reveals the disdain and hatred that the Orbán government has concertedly sought to direct to the refugees, to obscure their own dire situation, as much as the threat that they purportedly pose to Hungarian social services–and to treat refugees as human chattel that Roma people have been so regularly cast.

Refugees at Serbian Border:Sergey Ponomarev:NYTSergey Ponomarev/New York Times

The fence is most inopportunely placed.  The fence is an assault on human dignity which however has clear origins in the theater of Hungarian politics.  For it was in part built as a  response to the threat refugees pose to the mental space of the Orbán’s government and his FIDESZ supporters, as much as Hungary–as is the recent confinement of desperate refugees who have arrived, homeless, at Budapest’s nineteenth-century eastern Keleti railway station, in search of final passage to Germany and the European Union.  (The buses that had carried thousands of refugees to Austria–where they have been more generously received–are no longer being provided, according to Hungary’s police chief, but some 1,200 also attempted to walk the same distance, on the highway, to seek to try to reach their destination by foot in the stifling midday heat, after westward buses and trains to Austria and Germany were suspended.)

There a sense that the current and ongoing crisis of processing refugees creates a conceptual crisis in the nation-state, but the reaction to an influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq.  But it has been highly staged as a way to deny the humanity of those fleeing, rather than to need to address their misfortunes, and the response of other countries, as Austria, reveals a clear possibility of a different reception for refugees in Europe, less dictated by fear.


The cyclone chain link fence that along ten miles in length was planned on a political map, in hopes to prevent a global disaster from entering the mental space of the Prime Minister and of sustainers of the right-wing FIDESZ party, as well as Hungarian territory–it stands for a reactionary impulse to affirm the impermeability of the country’s national frontier is an unacceptable reaction to the arrival of refugees in increasing numbers and with increasing desperation.  By exploiting the status of Hungary as the first Schengen nation able to grant asylum, tasked with the job of fingerprinting and processing refugees, the Hungarian government has opportunistically and inhumanely decided to exploit its situation to prevent those seeking asylum from entering the European Union, in ways that have tended to elevate its status as a frontier for its own ends.


While the problem of processing refugees is surely not only a European one, the position that the Hungarian government has taken is more than opportunistic.  The overtly protectionist barricade is an attempt to force those desperately seeking asylum, and may also encourage them to search for other, riskier, overseas routes.  It seems, moreover, inseparable from terrifying images of the mute rebuff met by the anguished face of terrified refugees.   But it is also a deadly political game.  Prime Minister Orbán’s Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, stoically vowed in mid-June of 2015, unilaterally and with the apparent intent of stoking alarmism, that his country “cannot afford to wait any longer” having processed 54,000 immigrants and with the count of refugees poised to rise 120,000 by the year’s end–even though Hungary was actually way-station to asylum elsewhere, rather than a final destination, for most, and was obligated as the first nation in the Schengen area to grant asylum to refugees who had crossed the Balkans.

But the sense of desperation that he voiced reflected a deep confusion about the place that Hungary seemed to have inherited on the border of Europe.  The fence slated for completion in August, 2015 was not alone; it was only one in a series of fences that Europeans are engaged in building as they wrestle with new global patterns of refugee traffic in Calais, Greece, Bulgaria, Estonia, and the Ukraine, misguidedly construe local perceptions of a truly global crisis–much as Orbán has recast the plight of refugees as a conflict between opposed faiths.  The reaction to refugees has been particularly poignant in Hungary, and has prompted news maps to characterize the dreams of the ruling party to create a gate to Europe, as much as provide a possible response to hopes many refugees will continue to nurture.


Yahoo News

Sealing the border with a militarized chain-link barricade provides a particularly stony rebuff, truly terrifying, evident in images of recent encounters with the anguished faces of desperate and panicked refugees who sought asylum.


For the attempt to block the flow of refugees what one seems to erecting is not only an inhumane gesture, but a desperately local distortion of a global problem.  The fence has recently impelled French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to express credulous wonder at the scandal that this act disrespects European respect for human rights–as United Nations refugee agencies stepped just short of condemning the construction of a fence as a fit response to those searching for safety and protection–and asylum; the Swiss would ban Orbán’s travel to their country, and freeze Hungarian assets in response to indignation at the “human rights situation and the refugee scandal” in the country.”  The fence may well encourage those fleeing their own perilous conditions from adopting still more dangerous itineraries and routes of illegal migration.  “This wall–we will not accept it,” Syrian refugee Mohamed Hussein bitterly observed, pausing on travels through Turkey and Serbia, as he attempted to walk from Iran to Turkey.

How can one, however, insist on responding locally to a truly global dilemma of desperate flight?

Even though the actual routes of illegal immigration of refugees are so complexly negotiated and improvised to defy a clean cartographical synthesis, the actual routes of refugees were rarely imaged as running through Hungary on earlier news maps.


But if the routes of refugees are difficult to map, the propaganda map issued by the Hungarian government’s Office of Immigration and Citizenship pictured the routes of refugees in ways that seem particularly distorting :  the map almost openly validates fears of invasion in a crudely (and no doubt intentionally) propagandistic map designed to stir up fears that shows the Hungarian nation as imperiled from an onslaught of “illegal immigrants” needing to be stopped:

Office of Citizenship and ImmigrationHungarian Office of Immigration and Citizenship

The bold and forceful red arrows that lead directly through Hungary conjure the flows that the proposed barricade proposed to stop or “staunch” along the boundary lines between Hungary and Serbia.

The propaganda map issued by the Office of Immigration and Citizenship seems designed to intentionally stoke xenophobic fears, emphasizing the nation as a unit of continued meaning in an emergency of truly global proportions, as well as to magnify the role that such a fence on Hungary’s border would have.  There is something grotesquely inhumane to chart the itineraries of refugees who have travelled on foot from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria as if they were a phalanx of approaching Panzers, adopting the rhetoric of a map of military advances–although the refugees who often took these paths often travelled not only without arms, but barefoot.  But the map conjures a threat as if it were in danger of being immediately posed to the national frontiers.


The actual routes of refugees take are considerably more complicated and improvised, of course, but when schematically mapped reveal routes less exclusively focussed on a Balkan itinerary–although this is one of the sites of greatest police push-back according to Amnesty International–until they find detention centers to welcome them across the Sebian border.


Financial Times (September 2, 2015)

Yet the image echoes the deeply xenophobic fears that the Orbán government has intentionally sought to stoke.  Faced with growing unemployment rates and nourished by openly racist xenophobia, the 23,000 people who applied in the past year for asylum in Hungary alone from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq no doubt created a basis for panic in the Orbán government and ruling Fidesz party, whose prominent display of public billboards cautioning asylum-seekers “IF YOU COME TO HUNGARY, YOU CANNOT TAKE HUNGARIANS’ JOBS” in Hungarian were not only the revers of a red carpet, but widely cast their xenophobic rhetoric–long adopted by Orbán’s FIDESZ ruling party–in the disquieting garb of national protectionism.  Despite the posters, however, Oban has continued to state that the arrival of Muslim immigrants poses not only a challenge to jobs, however, but a challenge to Europe’s faith in particularly incendiary rhetoric, describing the “madness” of the current EU immigration policy as a departure from common sense.



As the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner of Refugees has noted, such response hardly befit refugees seeking asylum who are in need of international protection.  And in an attempt to gain the upper hand, UNHCR displayed its own counter-billboards in Budapest–

Anti-Immigration Campaign

–providing images of integration of immigrants that the FIDESZ seeks to banish from Hungarians’ minds.

In Hungary


The rhetoric of preventing the arrival in European territories of refugees who have travelled through the Balkans appeals to the nationalist imagination of some Hungarians.  The fence was build, allegedly, in a move of protectionism of European identity, “to stop the flood,” as Zoltán Kovács, government spokesperson, coldly put it, indulging a particularly dehumanizing rhetoric that has led not only to the construction of the fence.  In going so far as to claim that Hungary is “the most affected EU country in absolute terms,” the government has perversely distorted a crisis of painfully global proportions by representing it in local terms.  The defense Prime Minister Orbán openly made advocating the use of internment camps as suitable responses to immigrants reflect this perception that Hungary lies the “forefront” of the immigration crisis–although this crisis is clearly global–in order to justify the building of a fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border of over 100 miles in length.

For Orbán has gone to great pains to defend the impassibility of a border rather than devote public funds to possible resettlement of immigrants, or to their processing as refugees.  While the construction of an improvised fence of coiled razor-wire and chain link, to be monitored by armed officers who will guard the border with the aim to prevent the fence from destruction with wire-cutters, builds on a conviction that Hungary is the gateway of illegal immigrants to Europe’s borders, and filled his self-assumed charge “to keep Europe Christian,” as Orbán told the German Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung in a particularly ill-considered attempt to win sympathy, does not conceal disregard for human rights in proclaiming the risk of Europe being “overrun“–adopting a explicitly anti-islamic xenophobic tenor that unabashedly invokes a politics of global opposition, if not a conflict between faiths, that echoes Samuel P. Huntington’s clash of civilizations.  The very deployment of this inappropriately oppositional rhetoric all too conveniently overlooks the desperation behind refugees’ flights.  (FIDESZ is an acronym, but evokes the Latin deity of trust and reliability–much as Agenzia Fides remains the news agency of the Vatican, adopting the term for faithfulness or faith to link its pronouncements to those of the Catholic church–even as Pope Francis has ordered all churches and clergymen in Hungary and Europe to open their doors to those claiming status as refugees.)


Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / Getty Images

Overrun, we might well ask, with whom, or with what?

It is true, the strident rhetoric of Orbán’s government may build on a series of similarly xenophobic precedents by which flustered bureaucrats have, maybe imitating the United States, built walls–perhaps more for their own populations than as actual preventive measures.  In seeking to terrify immigrants and refugees, Orbán has all too openly conflated the dangerous criminal and the immigrant with particular zest.  For the image of a fortressed Europe is a scarily common reaction to fears of immigration that many Europeans can barely suppress, and may press unique pressures on the European Union.

If English newspapers like the Daily Mail seized up on the image of the Hungarian fence as a response to illegal immigration–


Daily Mail

–no doubt in part due to the proximity of London to the 3,000 refugees crowded into substandard camps in Calais, where refugees are waiting to cross the channel, even as British PM David Cameron has publicly ruled out the granting of safe havens, as Englishmen have volunteered to provide them with some relief in migrant camps, and hundreds from Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia daily risk travel to England by train and ferries.


6.  The demands to contain the global flow of refugees has often been perceived in a very distorting local optic that seem less interested in care–or of conceptualizing care–than of creating clearer boundaries than refugees might perceive.

The widespread trending across much of Europe toward “fencing” borders to turn back immigrants echo a broad misconception that the best defense is to built fences that blithely believe they can push the “problem” elsewhere in areas on the edges of Europe, as public projects that resemble the extensive ditches dug in the Middle Ages, if they are far less effective:

Fortressing Europe

Such public works projects suggests unique pains of the human rights crisis of refugees seeking asylum, albeit that these attempts have so far been largely located on the margins of the EU (Bulgaria; Greece; Estonia; and Ukraine)–and uncomfortably imitate the same sort of strong-man statist rhetoric with which Orbán confronted his own government’s crisis.

But the truly terrifying materialization of the border line with razor wire in the lengthy fence along Hungary’s border with Serbia conjures a distinct flavor of xenophobia, no doubt, of dubious legality, oddly analogous to the Catch-22 type of situation at Budapest’s Keleti station, where refugees are clustered, confined by guards, in ways that have increasingly come to reflect the markedly increased brutality that the creation of fences so often inspires among border guards and police officers.  Did the existance of the fence not increase the markedly inhumane violence of border guards and police at Keleti station?

Such rhetoric is tied to the improvised creation of a counter-city that has emerged at Budapest’s Keleti railway station, as migrants are denied transit on trains that would provide passage to other EU countries where they would more readily be granted asylum.

Refugees After being forced Outside Station in Budapest:Lazar Simeonov, Al JazeeraLazar Simeonov/Al Jazeera

Is detention, and the prospect of the completion of the iron fence–so analogous to the fences that Donald Trump has promised to build along the United States’ border with Mexico, and based on the distorted logic of viewing non-nationals as akin to terrorists that has been diffused by the US Office of Homeland Security–either an adequate or humane response?  Fears of the brutality of guards brought into face-to-face confrontation with immigrants who border guards feel are both illegal and guilty of having entered across a state-built barrier seem more likely to occur.

Refugees Asleep outside Budapest Station:Simeonov

Lazar Simeonov/Al Jazeera

There is something deeply troubling–and deeply pathetic–that the Eastern Railway station of the capital, a triumphalist beaux arts symbol of the Hungarian nation’s new image of industrial progress, has become a site of confinement–and of refusing to asylum or refugee status to those seeking passage to Europe.  The marginalization of these refugees to a stateless limbo hopes that their problem will go away, rather than develop a consensus that their fate remains a pressing problem needing collective attention.  So much seems a symptom of the priorities that the Orbán government has established, as if to deny any possibility of refugees’  entry and to deny their actual itineraries and travails.


1 Comment

September 3, 2015 · 2:19 pm

Looking for the Local in the Age of Unilever

The branding of Ben & Jerry’s “Home-Made” ice cream exploited Vermont’s appreciation of its local dairy farms from its very start:  the image of the green grasses that fed Vermont cows and independent farmers helped promote the home-grown qualities of what once passed as artisanal ice cream in America–as much as its super-premium swirled chunks.  But fears that the famously reputedly socially-conscious manufacturer of ice cream might lose track of its local origins as it was distributed by the Unilever ice-cream Anglo-Dutch conglomerate seem to have been borne out by the shifting relation of the brand to space, to judge by the relation of the ice-cream maker that long trumpeted its specific geographic origins to the farms that lie in its back yard.

What are the costs at which the Vermont ice-cream maker that  cast its use of local dairy–before the allegedly Scandinavian recipe of Haagen Dasz–as a defense of the home-made forsaken its ties to the very state that it once announced as its  home?  While long known for paying premium prices to Vermont dairy farmers, as well as for its super-premium ice cream, recent questions about the company’s treatment of migrant workers may lift a corner on some deep transformations of its ethos.  Despite the celebrated smoothness with which the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate fielded a CEO to the guys who marked “Imagine Whirled Peace,” and spun other up-beat slogans into their wares with the abandon of clusters of chocolate-covered caramels and toffee while donating percentages their pre-tax profits, the transition of the ice-cream maker’s identity may have been far less smooth.

The early appropriation of the image of local Vermont dairy farmers’ cream and milk was no small part of the allure Ben & Jerry’s long cultivated as a locally sourced ice-cream, created only with milk purely from Vermont cows–and co-opting the support for local milk, long, long, before ban-RBGH concerns began, when ice cream appealed primarily to the local sweet tooth, and the milk was unproblematically local.  Has the sweetness of Vermont dairy curdled in an age less tied to place, and where the community of Vermont dairy workers is no longer entirely clear?  For even as the external values of the corporation remain fairly intact since 2001, despite its continued philanthropy, embrace of progressive politics as well as of organic, sustainable, and Fair Trade suppliers,the ice cream maps far less closely onto the local community.




Ben & Jerry’s Finest ice cream quickly became a local icon in Vermont; its Waterbury location is near the now legendary first site of ice-cream churning with an old VW bus, where it has served as a sort of shrine, tourist destination, and site for indulging in ice-cream concoctions, and the official burial site and graveyard of retired flavors, and the firm has long reached out to support worthy local causes to illustrate the centrality of its membership in the local Vermont community.

The brand has of course long capitalized on exclusively using locally sourced cows for its milk and supporting Vermont farmers–years before and after they went public in 1984, and back in the late 1970s.  But something slightly odd happened to “all those quirky values” in the agrarian economy of the state and the local status of the brand that is all too evident in the geography of its current Scoop Shops.  For the renegade ice cream of two regular guys changed from one of the most popular items at local gas stations, general stores, and Scoop Shops in Vermont, to being an object of relative revile in some areas of the same state.  While the celebrated “quirky style” of super-premium flavors boasts by Ben & Jerry’s Homemade was long part of the local geography of a region dotted with dairy farms, the promises of the glocal mission of a corporate distribution of the expanding flavors has swiftly bent the rainbow of Scoop Shops to the forces of marketing with visible results.

The result is to warp the landscape of local loyalty, spreading with a density that seemed like broken “Oreo”-style cookie bits throughout the northeast and eastern seaboard, albeit with large, empty distances apparent on Google Maps.


In this condition of national expansion–and distribution world-wide–it makes sense to consider the relation of Ben & Jerry’s home-made is to the Green Mountain state with which it still publicly self-identifies.

For the embrace of global causes by the ice-cream maker seems to dovetail with the distribution of a globalized world, so that as it has spread across America, the ice cream seems to have become distanced from Vermont.  When the store-owner of one store was politely asked whether they carried the ice cream advertised on a poster showing the smiling faces of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield from days gone by, the amiable if gruff shop owner seated directly behind a worn wooden counter replied “Nope,” and when asked why grumbled the equally reticent if slightly exasperated and drawn out “Because they’re assholes,” without further comment.  None was needed for the shopkeeper, who kept a worn Ben & Jerry’s post in the window as if in memory of times past.

The local shop-owner of few words wasn’t referring to Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield, long locally celebrated stars, but rather to the distributors of ice-cream since 2001, Unilever–an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate who snapped up the once “Home-Made” company, with far fewer ties to the Vermont farmers and stores than the company’s founders, and linked it to the corporate world at $43.60 a share.  Free cone day–famous as the day that its internet site crashed because it coincided with the hottest day of the summer–was in fact celebrated in relatively few stores in the Vermont area, according to B&J’s own website . . .

scoop shops in age of Unilever

The story of what happened to the local ice-cream after its acquisition by Unilever is interesting to map.  The acquisition reflects the transformation of a local success story into a cultivated boutique factory that claims to boast local charm, but ships worldwide to big stores and cultivates college towns, as it neglects its very own back yard.  So much is suggested in the relatively glaring absence of celebrated Scoop Shops across Vermont nearby the factory store itself, which still attracts visitors for tours.  The story surely demands to be told in relation to the changing landscape of ice cream–a $32.4 billion market in 2006–and the currently quite indistinct relation to the concept of the locally sourced, and depends on supermarket chains where the seemingly ever-more-candied and cream-rich confection is sold.

The ice cream makers seem to have themselves cultivated a numinous relation to world freedoms in flavors like ‘Rain Forest Crunch’ and ‘Imagine Whirled Peace’ (an overpowering caramel and sweet cream, swirled with fudge peace signs), the self-satisfied ‘Save our Swirled’ (Raspberry Ice Cream with Marshmallow and Raspberry Swirls, and Dark and White Fudge), pushing new limits of swirling, or ‘Brewed to Matter’ that exclusive uses shade-grown coffee?  Is its promise of “euphoria” a bit too stratospheric in its aspirations?

globe of ice cream cone


The fears of an eventual loss of the small-town culture once cultivated by the successful if once renegade ice-cream makers of Waterbury, who opted to sell their company as the notion of broadening their commitment to social justice was effectively dangled before their eyes, when Unilever co-chairman Niall Ferguson, arriving to meet Ben & Jerry sporting a knapsack rather than attache case, addressed concerns by promoting his own interest in sustainable agriculture for three hours, and then let Richard Goldstein, head of Unilever’s North American operations, approach Ben Cohen himself with the words, “Ben, do you realize the opportunity you have here to help this company grow in its social commitment?” as a teaser of the still-greater “social impact” the ice-cream maker might have in this new business arrangement.

The broad social platform Ben & Jerry’s has since eagerly assumed have channeled its brand recognition to advance causes from non-GMO foods and marriage equality to rain-forest preservation and global warming.  It has led to the creation of several persuasive maps that are identifiably promoting the font and iconography from cartons of the premium ice-cream, in ways that seem to lend if not cement the ice cream’s logo to progressive causes.  The playful “Ben & Jerry’s” font was used to follow the evolution of states’ legal stances toward marriage equality in previous decades, providing a platform to direct public attention toward tracking the advance of marriage equality in the United States in the very lettering that we might be more familiar from reading in scoop shops or on ice-cream cartons:

B&J Marriage Equality Map Same-Sex Ruling OCt 6

B & J Marriage Equality

And, of course, the Burlington Scoop Shop was indeed often made the symbolic center of advancing progressive causes–especially when Vermont was one of the few states in the union where same-sex marriage was legally allowed–that seem fueled on the sugar-backed ice cream served across the street on Pride Day, adopting the trademarked lettering and rainbow backdrop for cows to sport heart-shaped pink-tinted eyeglasses that echo the nineteen-sixties’ counter-culture it has effectively reclaimed:

B&J Marriage Equality march

Is the political platform of Unilever offered, by allowing the ice-cream to go “hands free” that can promote social causes also a bit of an inevitable abandonment of the very rootedness in the Vermont dairy community that once defined the ice cream’s core values in the days before it marked such core centers as fudge, caramel, or real raspberry jam?

The costs of becoming one of Unilever’s “global brands”–and among its 2000 brands of ice-cream it owned by 2006, in what was a growing 32.4 billion ice cream market, in which place or locality seemed to mean much less.  The contradiction was apparent as the ice-cream began to loose market shares quickly–even as it gained a global presence, and “went warehouse.”

Ben & Jerry's vs. Haagen Das

One visible consequence of “going warehouse” is present on the map.  The distribution of scoop shops in the state of Vermont sharply reduce once abundant celebrated stores on the state map.  For the distributors of the locally produced ice cream have, in a snub to their clientele, closed many of the very shops that once sprouted up with the density of candy and cookie bits that once seemed so specific to the super-premium ice cream.  The maps displayed on the company’s website which allows customers to find the stores nearest to their zip suggest the considerable costs of the greater remove from Vermont at which that buyout came–and of the shift to a global/glocal ice-cream that the company adopted in its new corporate guise.

absence of scoop shops

Panning out nationally on the OSM slippy map, one finds a paltry three Scoop Shops in the state that once seemed inseparable from the charm of an ice cream that promoted local values, but seems now more glocal, and more with an eye on outside markets than the state for which local farms were long said to produce the milk and cream–or the notion of Scoop Shops were less appealing, and too much overhead, in comparison to supermarkets after the big acquisition removed the ice cream from the community, and its social mission expanded to making “the world a better place” by taking on climate change through Rain Forest Crunch and GMO farming through its reliance on somewhat carefully sourced ingredients, and its economic mission geared primarily to “sustainable financial growth.”  Although “climate justice” is difficult to see as compatible with a product that depends on refrigeration, long-term trucking, and huge freezer storage space in the warehouses it employs to distribute its product nation- and world-wide–despite some notable attempts to introduce innovative low-energy freezers.

scoop shops in age of Unilever absence of scoop shops Scoop Shops Post-Unilever


Those few Scoop Shops easily located on the company website indicate the increasingly market-driven nature of the locations of a chain that seems somehow less based in Vermont, site of its main factory that offers year-round tours.  A cute map uses chocolate ice-cream cone designators that pop out of whatever landscape “near me” at its website–yet few stores have survived in the state apart from three scoop shops in Waterbury, Burlington, and Rutland.

Scoop Shops Post-Unilever

southern us

One can’t go home again, to be sure.  But is the disappearance of the local in this once locally-produced confected treat more symptomatic of a deeply corporate design of the marketing and the production of ice cream?  For the production of an ice cream that long vaunted locally sourced milk from Vermont dairy farms seems to depend far more on migrant labor–and poor working conditions–than the brightly colored ice-cream containers would suggest.

But has the ice cream once boasted “Vermont’s Finest” deeply divorced itself from the site of its first success?  For the recent spate of complaints and protests that the ostensibly socially minded brand of super-premiums actually rests on the sweat of migrant workers and low wages raises more than an eyebrow about the wage and labor conditions that go into producing all those rich flavors, and cannot but echo the chagrin of the local shop-owner.  For the problems of profit-sharing–almost a mantra in the early days of the ice-cream makers–has launched a Milk with Dignity (MWD) campaign that aims at improving the living conditions and wages as well as work conditions of the   1,200 to 1,500 migrant workers who help manage milk production on Vermont’s 868 dairy farms.  The sort of demands for  greater autonomy and a say in working conditions is not specific to dairy production or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but range from better housing to leave time in ways that would surely fluster the former ice-cream makers.  

For despite the vaunting of global causes on the tops and sides of those containers of ice cream, the local conditions of work for many seem horrendous, and hard to defend.  Of the workers recently surveyed, some 40% earned less than the minimum wage.  Many lack health insurance, are denied medical care, or allowed breaks for eating during their workdays, which sometimes exceed twelve hours in length–in ways hard to square with the company’s stated social mission or its stated ethical imperatives from fair-trade bananas to non-RBGH milk, or cage-free eggs.  Despite the continued window dressing of imperatives that resonate with Whole Foods, the ’s signature do-gooder brand seems to have neglected the workplace conditions of many of the dairies with whom it contracts, and failed to adopt an agenda of improving workplace conditions besides vague hopes that try to link humane farming practices about cultivating a work/life balance.

Milk with DignityMigrant Justice

Leave a comment

Filed under globalization, labor conditions, Vermont

The Consequences of Over-Crowding our Country with Factory Farms

Questions of scale, distribution, and crowding are increasingly central to mapping and data visualizations.  The increasingly troubling geographical crowding of factory farms in the country constitute a cautionary reminder of our shifting relation to the production of food–and the perils not only of concentrating most livestock in inhumanely crowded conditions, but concentrating our farmlands at a physical remove from most populations.

By a perverse twist in the logic of economic conditions, the unprecedented concentration of farmlands at a remove from populations not only changes our food; the ways we to treat food production come with steep environmental costs.  This post teases out some of the consequences of the transformation of agricultural practices, as intensified application of pesticides to produce the huge quantities of grain that enable industrial-scale ‘farming’ with their own costs.   Despite a renewed culture of small farming in select economies, the remove at which factory farms lie from populations have not only changed our relation to food but created after-effects we have only begun to unpack.

Although the mundane nature of our food supply is rarely so explicitly tied with the anthropocene–a topic especially in vogue, but usually comparison with the carbon footprint or petroleum products.  Yet the density of factory farms in America has left inroads in the landscape that seem truly difficult to erase, from the growing number of “food miles” that much meat now travels to processing plants to reach consumers in restaurants and supermarkets, to the damage that technologies of over-fertilization and pesticide-use.  The shifting landscape of farming, or of big agra, creates a dense concentration of farms in the United States–a post-modern geography that is revealed in the disquieting distrubution that Chris Kirk of Slate created in a web-based map that calls to attention the select space in which American farmers/1,000 people lie–a map that implies the growing distance of most farmers from markets of food, and indeed the concentration of areas where farmers constitute a sizable share of the population.

Farmers:100 eah state

Chris Kirk

Even more striking, perhaps, is the limited range of locations where the production of crops retains greatest value.

Crop Value

The consequences of this quite uneven distribution will be increasingly significant.  Indeed, the greatest environment impact of varied foods are most easily measured by the distances food takes to reaching consumers, the growing “food mileage” fostered by factory farms located in landlocked regions of the country are one of the most strikingly inefficient ways of delivering food–and provide one of the best indices of the impact of food on our environment.


Robert A. Rhode (2000)

1. The data visualization of the distribution of factory farms included as the header to this post places in evidence the concentration of factory farms in America.  It tells a story of the changing nature of animal husbandry in a world where markets have become dissociated from agricultural production–and suggests an absence of attention to the origins of most meat, and the redrawing of husbandry, as well as the redrawing of croplands, far from centers of densest inhabitation, where food-miles are further expanded than in any other era of human history–with indelible consequences for the human diet.

For the intensity of the concentration of factory farms in America is emblematic a strange but powerful illustration of economic disequilibria, where expanding farms have rendered independent farming barely profitable, and driven farmers to become technology-happy in their purchase of new tools of pasturing that almost erase the need for pasture.  The business model that has replaced crop rotation, and open fields of pasture, has not erased the differences between the farming of cattle, pigs, and chickens, but dramatically decreased them to create a terribly terrifying sort of man-made experiment that may not be only waiting to occur.

Increasingly, technologies of mass-farming livestock are not only removed from pasturing, but adopted in places increasingly removed from centers of population, and depending on transportatino networks of their own to arrive at consumers in their less-than-fresh state.  The turn toward a dense clustering of factory farms offers a fairly terrifying view of the marginalization of the space where pastured animals dwell–and, of course, chickens have it hardest, both given their size and manipulable conditions.  The remove of current conditions from sustainable roaming and feeding on nutritious grasses may be ironic, given the clustering of factory farms in many areas of the Midwest, but they are particularly torturous to livestock–animals are increasingly raised with limited access to sunlight, fresh air, or open space–and indeed consumers, as such farming techniques increasingly necessitate antibiotics to prevent outbreaks of disease from high-grain diets that are far less healthy for livestock.

The influence of such a concentration of farms seems to leave an increasingly indelible footprint on our environment.  The arrival of the anthropocene is rarely related to the congestion of farming–but in a sense begins from the poor stewardship of the land in which the free market has led to a wholesale promotion of the inhumane and unhealthy crowding of a concentration of over-fertilized farms in the so-called heartland of the midwest, a deep distortion that the recent funding for the Farm Bill perpetuates in ways that make it seem difficult to turn back the page on the density of factory farms in many states–and the consequent degradation of the surrounding lands and the environments that factory farms pollute.  Mapping factory farms is not only about communicating the incredible scale of current-day farming, but the increasingly indelible traces that they leave on the land by their use of broadly cast nitrogen-rich fertilizer, neonicotinoid insecticides and other herbicides, for which farm workers–or handlers of produce–are rarely provided any protection.

And although interactive maps have yet to develop adequate synesthetic models to render the human sense of smell, the concentrations of factory farms demand models of integrating interactive with scratch-and-sniff techniques to adequately indicate the 13.8 billion cubic feet of waste factory farms collectively generate, in greater excess of what the land can absorb or incorporate–at considerable danger to polluting drinking water and air, since factory farms fail to use manure to fertilize in the manner that farms did in the past, as well as one of the greatest sources of the release of methane gas.  Neil Gaiman’s Wednesday recently ruefully remarked “San Francisco isn’t the same country as [the imagined town of] Lakeside anymore than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis,” despite “certain cultural signifiers [like] money, a federal government, entertainment” that perpetuate the illusion of one country like money, television, and McDonald’s.

The area occupied by factory farms suggest something of an actual country within the country, apparently insulated from the population at large, but plays with different rules that stand in increasing danger of contaminating the world from which it appears removed.  For maps suggest significant evidence that the arrival of the anthropocene may lie in the growing disequilibria of ecosystems that have grew up around unnaturally dense concentrations of factory farms.

2. The clustering of factory farms charts an ever-expanding distance between food production and consumption, and a deep re-understanding of man’s relation to the environment.  The alarming scale at which we have come to produce food has entailed a warping of agrarian environments that produce a limited range of foods on ever-increasing scale.  Those pockets of the deepest red–the instinctual signifier of danger–marks an extreme congestion of the landscape with factory farms for livestock and intensive agriculture grown in a scale beyond bulk, whose density carries clear costs.  For with over nine million land animals killed each year in order to produce food for Americans in 2014, factory farms have reached a scale and concentration rarely dreamed of, and the scale of its farming has provoked unfamiliar environmental effects:   the amount of animal manure produced in expanding factory farms in the United States have come to produce the fastest growing source of the greenhouse gas methane in the US since 2007–and as well as producing animal waste, stream harmful quantities of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and particulate matter.  And their geographic concentration by 2012, largely in an areas of cheap land, and landlocked states, removes them from the possibility of any transport save trucking–


Distributions like the above show the concentration of such “factory farms” across the lower forty-eight states as recently as 2012 demand scrutiny as an object-lesson of a post-industrial agrarian age, whose pockets of deep red or crimson sharply contrasting with wan yellow expanses where factory farms are absent from the landscape.

The distribution demands comparison with a more finely grained map showing the declining number of smaller farms. But its totality confronts viewers with the increasing saturation of pockets of the farms cape in such indelible reds to force us to ask not only about the desirability of producing food so intensively in select regions, but to try to investigate the steep consequences, costs and effects of the colonization of the farmscape by radically intensive factory farms, dedicated to cultivating mono-crops on a far greater economy of scale (and subsidization) than was previously imagined possible. The result is to create a farmscape more increasingly removed from consumers.  For the industry of agriculture–either in the form of crops or animal pasturage–contrasts sharply to the very notion of farm stewardship, and indeed is situated at a greater remove from the most densely inhabited land.


Food & Water Watch analysis of U.S. Dept of Agriculture Census of Agriculture Data

Whether or not it is still true that, as Gertrude Stein once said in her Geographical History of America, that “in the United States, there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is,” there are surely a deeper concentration more farms built to “feed” Americans than anywhere else.  By using a range of data visualizations, this post poses questions of how we can best orient ourselves to the increasing crowding of the spacious farmscape with monocultures that the monopolies of farming Big Agra has introduced.  It then turns to consider the increasingly steep consequences and costs that they pose in our society of laws.

For the drastic dependence on synthetic fertilizers–which now consume a fifth of fossils fuel use, and allow new economies of scale of monocultures releasing farms from a diversity of crops, at the same time that their production was increasingly subsidized, freeing them from the market.  The consolidation and concentration of food-production are enabled by large-scale production freed from sales at the marketplace, doubling of the size of the average farm, while decreasing farms have decreased from 7 million in the 1930s to almost 2 million today, based on an increased ability of production that diminished the nutritional value of produce; animals that are fed almost entirely on a diet of corn produce meat far higher in saturated fats.  The  toxic cocktail of such distorted land-use is complicated even more by the regular release from factory farms of nitrogen and pesticides into the environment posing problems from oxygenic depletion to drastic decreases in local species’ fertility:  the factory farm, liberated from biological constraints of earlier times, has grown to meet radically new economies of scale.

Rather than grow corn, squash, peas, pumpkin, parsnips, carrots or onions, the landscape of the factory farm is focussed on corn–the over-subsidized as the dominant mono-crop grown across the perpetual harvests of over-farmed fertilized lands.

2002 Factory Farm All Map USA

legend factory famrsFactory Farms in the United States, 2002/Food & Water Watch, analysis of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Census of Agriculture Data

By adopts a crude sort of map algebra comparing data visualizations, this post juxtaposes a range of datamaps that raise pressing questions about such steep levels of concentration of factory farms, and the severity the extreme crowding of space by factory farms that is scarily demonstrated in the above data vis.  While they are able to go unnoticed, the proximity of small blue dots that designate “meat plants” in the data vis above seem worthy of special note, both because of the considerable geographical remove of such plants that “feed” much of the nation and the clear bands on which they are situated.  Eyeballing these maps of the colonization of much of the midwest, and a density of farming that places a demand on overwatering–and okverfertilizing–select regions, in ways that put an increased premium on long-distance trucking, unfreeze farm products, and huge storage houses.  The concentration of factory farms for hogs, for example, creates an intensity and crowding that cannot be conceived as healthy–where sows pumped nurse piglets in gestation crates, as breeding machines, before being led to the slaughterhouse.



The concentration of hog farms is abstractly rendered in a map, but their increasing intensity is elegantly communicated to viewers of the several interactive visualizations Food & Water Watch devised from GIS data of USDA agrarian censuses from 2002 to 2012:

hogs 2002

Hogs 2012

Food and Water Watch

For such livestock and poultry factory farms, largely out of public view, are quite aptly characterized as concentration camps for animals, which “aren’t farms at all”, and the dangers of such a segregation of such segregation of factory farms, which aim to ban observation by journalists or observers.  Recent attempts to ban observers from reporting on the practices and conditions in farms run by corporations like Tyson Foods, Smithfield, and Borden–“Ag-Gag” laws–make the mapping of such farms more compelling.  Despite the spate of state legislators seeking to tar the observers of the animal factory as guilty of “an act of terrorism,” their mapping far more necessary. For the mapping of the factory farm and the pesticides and fertilizers they spew provides the best way to embody crises otherwise difficult to comprehend from antibacterial resistance to colony-collapse disorder, which have resulted in a decline of 40-50% of bees at farms in recent years that may be due to the increasing use of neonicotinoid pesticides that may reduce their homing abilities–


–to deeply uneven distributions of epidemiological imbalances, examined in detail at the end of this post.  The density of the colonization of farmlands with factory farms and commercial crops provides a way to embody such complex patterns of causation–even if they hardly resolve the problems they pose.

Such severe environmental imbalances are the product of the concentration of agricultural practices that are increasingly removed form a sense of land-stewardship. The severity of the imbalance created both by the isolation of farms from the landscape and the poor practices adopted by big agra without adequate oversight is difficult to resolve.  But the effective cordoning off of such spots as “off the map” make it important to take stock of their distribution and presence but the distortions created by their economies of scale–both in diminishing foods’ nutritive value, endangering farm workers and regions, and the very inability to isolate the environment costs and consequences that occur at specific sites where they exist.

3.  The over-use of the “anthropocene” contains sighs of deep resignation, but is rarely tied to the production of food or the bloating of farms beyond a responsible stewardship of th eland.  Even if numbering is knowledge, the quite extreme quantitative density and concentration of of the spread of factory farms across what remains of the arable expanse of the central states suggests a shift in our relation to the land from which there is no clear turning back:  the data visualization in the header to this post may only scratch the surface of an ill-fated agrarian revolution that entails a shifted relation to the land. This data reveals not only a deep distancing from farmed land, but a change in how things grow and live in the land, and how people work the land.  The remove of agribusiness from policies of land management is apparent not only in the changing national farmscape, as well as the broad potential for agrarian mismanagement that the recent proliferation of unmonitored factory farms represent in the United States–where they seem something like the perverse inversion of the yeoman farmer ideal.

For the dramatically increasing density of factory farms in focussed geographic locations have wreaked systemic changes in ecosystems so deeply devastating to be difficult to map in quantifiable or quantitative terms.  Indeed, one would be challenged to isolate the very indices by which such devastation might be meaningfully measured or capture the shifts in landscapes of food production of which they are among the most extreme, so removed are they from notions of captivation and husbandry of the recent past, and so widely have they changed not only the produce–GMO or not–and the livestock and animals that are maintained for slaughter.  The radically changed relation to the land.  Viewed in aggregate, the contours of an almost unbridled presence of Big Agra across specific states offer a striking landscape–and farmscape–that profits from the continued availability of groundwater and aquifers.  The consequences of intensive raising of livestock and drastic consequences of agricultural runoff whose abysmal results is readily revealed in other maps.

What notion of the custodial relation to the most intensively farmed regions If the notion of “rewilding” the landscapes of industrialized nations is a response to the growth of the anthropocene, the factory farm epitomizes an expansion of anthropogenic pollutants that have shifted the environmental landscape of developed countries, and come with significant human costs.  A growing range of GIS data visualizations that can be seen as symptomatic of an age increasingly obese with data–and difficult to process let alone comprehend, as navigating robust data streams quickly leads to a sense of drowning and disempowerment, the ability to distance oneself from the changing landscapes created by the increased intensity of factory farming provides the possibility of regaining a sense of critical perspective on the anthropogenic changes in the ecosystems of agricultural life.  The density of the aggregation of factory farms reveal an imbalance due to lack of clear restrictions on the intensity of their development, the excavation of whose consequences call for more careful comparison to other data maps. To be sure, the lack of restrictions on such intensive farming reflects, in a global context of aquifer depletion, provided by researchers at UC Irvine with NASA data, profiting from the continued supply of groundwater in the central states–

Global Water Storage 2003-13

legend UC Irvine

and the peculiarity of that abundance in a global context, which has created a particularly warped perspective on the feasability of continuing to water such large-scale farms.

The retro maps of annual rainfall in the US produced by Flowing Data reveals, based on NWS data, how weather patterns in 2013 facilitated the sort of spatial distortions in the farmscape that the map in the header documents.


But the intensity of the landscape of factory farms that has been fashioned by Big Agra facilitated a huge rise in GMO crops, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics that suggest the systemic unhealthiness in the ecosystems that result.

4.  The quite rapidly shifting nature of the landscape of farming that has emerged in recent years, when factory farms have gained an unheard of density in many regions that signal a radically changed relation to food, suggests a new horizon of the anthropocene that demands excavation as an infographic that depicts our shifting relation to how Americans inhabit terrestrial expanse–and the risks we run in doing so.

Big Agra Maplegend factory famrs

The landscape of farmlands big agra has colonized and settled reflects a shift in the notion of land-use tied to globalization.  Even as glob tied that have freed humans from their dependence on local or regional ecosystems, the extent of alienation form an agricultural landscapes that have occurred in the past twenty years, and even over the last ten.

For the map reveals a profound super-personal alienation and remove from the farmed landscape, and remove from an ever-increasing density of farmland truly “extreme” in its narrowing of concentration on the potentialities of abundance and perverse privileging of an artificially induced economic abundance of select regions of cattle raising, dairy farming, hog farming, and chicken breeding that cannot be healthy or sustainable as forms of stewardship.  In a time when McDonalds promises us artisan grilled chicken of a “stringy interior” distinguished by a “somewhat chewy texture” and “fake butter flavor,” the broader relation of most consumers to the meat that they eat seems distinctly challenged.

Even if the clustering darkest crimson that denote an extreme density of factory farming happens to aptly indicate the masking of an emotional attachment to place–more central a premise of factory farms than economic demand–the deep unsustainable nature of the density of factory farming is only scratched in the data visualization that is the header to this post.  For the deepest reds blanketing central states (and the Central and Imperial Valleys of the western states, as well as clear concentrations of crimson in pockets of North Carolina, Florida, western New York and the northwest) suggest scars that may prevent us from recognizing the places in a map that we might otherwise have recognized or know.  The illusion of economic security is in danger of erasing emotional attachments to place, in ways that have only begun to be appreciated or understood.

Such strikingly dense concentrations of factory farms in such regional pockets–indeed, their confounding resilience–is all to evident in the data visualizations that Food and Water Watch has carefully compiled form agricultural censuses over the past decade.  The recent multi-media assemblage Factory Farm Nation–an evident reference to “Fast Food Nation,” whose commercial injunction to overeat, “supersize it,” placed the blame squarely on the business of purveyors of easy meals that were sold at illusionistically cheap prices, without asking about their future health costs.  Yet what of the rewriting of agriculture that has concentrated dense sites of overarming into our national landscape, as if to meet the nation’s ever-expanding and insatiable taste for meat?  Far from a pastoral landscape, the zones of intensive farming of such subsidized monocrops as corn, soy or sorghum so often encouraged by subsidies and so readily converted to a plentiful source of animal feed.

The collective distribution of factory farms spread across the country are not so surprisingly concentrated in its Central Zone.  But the business model has taken seed in regions from California to Washington and Idaho, and to Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Carolina–as of 2012, the concentration of both the largest farms and the centers of meat processing were increasingly concentrated not only from decades past, but even over the past ten years, as large regions of deep red–marking extreme concentrations of factory farms–come to overwhelm large regions and specific economies, and be absent from other regions removed from agribusiness.

The spread of factory farming, facilitated both by state subsidies and GMO crops, is partly premised on the economic transformation of agriculture.  Less visible are its deeply deleterious environmental consequences and ecological effects–as well as create an increasingly unhealthy food chains–and systems of production that seem forcefully remove the consumer from the farm and manufacturing of food that arrives in most supermarkets across most all of America.

Big Agra Map

Big Agra Map

legend factory famrs

5.  What makes the concentration of large farms so troubling is both the remove of food from markets and the conditions farming create–from both slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, shown here by asterisks, and the sacrificing of freshness (and nutritive value) in the over-producing of megacrops.  The concentration of farms pose challenges to the survival of small-scale farming outside very select economic niches, from parts of California, like Silicon Valley, to parts of New England and Vermont–and the steep challenges small farms face from big agra even in these areas.  But they depend on the increasing dependency of farmers on the technologies of farming on which Big Agra depends, both from standardized resistant seeds and pesticides to machinery.

The formidable concentration of cattle farming–a quintessential staple of factory farming–reflects the total distribution in 2012 of factory farms in the country, and even more intensely concentrated in the economies of the midwest,

Factory Farms: Cattle

legend factory famrs

With dairy farmers almost living in a somewhat greater variety of other states as of 2012:

Factory Farm Dairy 2012

legend factory famrs

and hog-farming occupying a similarly concentrated, if further contracted, set of select sites largely in the central states:

hog farming

legend factory famrs

The incredible intensity of carmine clusterings revealed in the data visualization above had profoundly changed from 2002, when the agrarian landscape was marked by a robust density of relatively high factory farms, but with fewer extreme concentrations, and an apparent greater range of meat-packing plants–

Big Agra Map

legend factory famrs

and even from the levels of large factory farms across the nation in 2007–

2007 Factory Farm Map Concentration

legend factory famrs

The state of Iowa appears as a uniform red that render its borders indistinct:


Or the uniform red spread across similar farming states that border the Mississippi, which has helped create one of the largest hypoxic site in the world within the Gulf of Mexico, which absorbs the agricultural runoff emptying from the Mississippi River:

midwest factory famrs

The shift in the notion of a farm is suggested by the concentration in bordering regions of the apparatus of farming–including the threat of resistant strains of bacteria, large feed lots, and almost insoluble problems of the disposal of animal waste.


The parallel radical contraction of regions of chicken-meat “farming”–the raising of “broilers”–suggests an unwarranted density of what was once the most familiar of barnyard animals, and now seem to serve much of the country from select areas of megafarms in the southern states, as well as parts of Pennsylvania, California, Wisconsin and Washington, and a range of factory farms along the Mississippi in 2012, that suggest a landscape little changed from 1997, if even more localized:

chicken breeding

What happened to effect such a change save weak agricultural rules and opportunistic farm policies?  One can see a notable consolidation of those “farms” that raise “broilers”–chickens destined for cooking–during the decade and a half between 1997 and 2012, with a rising density of factory farms and and the industrialization of poultry farming.

broilers 1997

broilers 2012


6.  The rapid rise of large-scale supplies of feed generate steep risks.  Their expansion was doubtless encouraged by the subsidization of ever-larger farms that allowed geographic concentration of intense factory farming in the central states, the densest clustering of centers of meat-packing.  Fertilizing practices are a part of the picture of creating large feed lots that are in need of better mapping, and provide the possibility of the supersizing of farms across America, and the expansion of the application of herbicides–as much as pesticides–that have increasingly come to characterize the agricultural practices of most factory farms in America.  For indeed the practices of no-till agriculture, large feed lots, mono crops, and over-fertilized lands are the enabling factors, as much as the consequences, of the spread of the complexes of factory farms across so much of the agricultural landscape of the United States according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent Agricultural Census.

How these practices encourage the unhealthy degrees of concentration of factory farms raising animals for slaughter suggest not only hugely increased animal suffering.  The increase of some 20% of livestock that are raised in large factory farms created, for example, a huge amount of manure–some thirteen times that produced by the human population of the United States–that pose a risk to local ecologies.  It also courts the steep risk of effectively creating reservoirs of antibiotic resistant bacteria, not only in specific regions, but in the meat that arrives on one’s table or in restaurants, and provokes the evolution of bacteria resistant to the antibiotics that are regularly fed at low dosages to all livestock–effectively increasing the threat food-born pathogens that industry has minimized.  Indeed, the mapping of AR bacteria across the United States (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) have begun to be mapped themselves, although the data and certainty of the distributions mapped interactively by Extending the Cure based on particularly resistant infections has created a distribution that demands to be further refined in future years–but have already shown a huge rise over time.

mrsa_us_map_blog_final p4-us-maps

Indeed, the extreme density of such factory farms in areas such as Iowa and Nebraska, whose almost undifferentiated terrain of deep red is studded with staggered meat-packing plants that serve a far greater area, preoccupy–as the steady rise of resistant antibiotic strains of bacteria across our national space, and the rise of antimicrobial resistance, and the huge expenditures of health care that both rises threaten to bequeath.  If increasingly sweeping the more developed world, related to both different standards of eating and to the marketing of anti-herbicides, as well as to problems in the recycling of wastewater, the resistance of antimicrobial bacterial strains pose a range of immense health risks–and a current health care cost in the United States that is estimated at 21-34 billion dollars a year, and some 100,000 deaths.

Although the diffusion of AR bacteria are to a large extent dependent on meat consumption, as much as actual locations of factory farms, the distribution of deep crimson in the central states and north and southwest offer an image of disturbing trends that demands to be excavated for its consequences, as well as contemplated for its intensity.  (They parallel the rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds.)

This seems to mirror both the extreme concentration of factory farms evident in the central states, as seen above in the case of Iowa,


midwest factory famrs

or pockets of the American South,

Southern States

legend factory famrs

These images trace the increasing remove discrete stretches of farmlands from the bulk of the population, if not an actual alienation of farmlands as the raising and butchering of meat migrates into controlled settings where antibiotic-resistant (AR) bacteria flourish.  Resistant strains of staph are a problem worldwide, as the below prevalence map reveals, and Methicillin-resistant bacteria have become common across many of the regions consuming factory-farm raised poultry.



Registered incidence of MRSA in human blood (2008), Wikimedia

But it is one in which the United States remains in the lead–and far ahead of Mexico and especially far ahead of Canada, our neighbors to the north, where one finds anti resistant strains to be a fifth of the prevalence of the US:


–and which seems concentrate din the eastern southern states, where it seems predominantly communicated in meat:


Such intensive areas of factory farming are more directly tied in the United States due to the unique geography of intensive farming promoted by Big Agra, the Sisyphean twin of the factory farm.


7.  Agribusiness is the not-too-silent twin of the factory farm, generating the copious abundance of cheap feed that is the bread and butter of factory farm feed lots–the shortsighted widespread use of herbicides Big Agra increasingly adopts, with minimal federal oversight, has facilitated the suppressing of factory farms of similar short-sighted agricultural practices and the poor stewardship of the land they reveal.  Even as the existing studies by the WHO’s anti-cancer arm found “sufficient evidence” that the herbicide glyphosate causes cancer in non-human animals, and “limited evidence” of its causation of chromosomal damage and kidney disease in humans, the Monsanto produced pesticide was reclassified by the EPA with the result of allowing its increased use within the food chain, much as it had earlier shifted the herbicide’s classification as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to having “evidence of non-carcinogenicity”–a shift of 180 degrees–after Monsanto petitioned to increase the allowable amount of the herbicide that in 2001 was already the most-used agricultural herbicide–and constituted 74% of the herbicides farmers used in California in 2012–having increased some 65% in commercial agriculture during the previous decade.

While the widespread uses of such herbicides are not mapped and readily measured with the relative precision and exactitude of factory farms, whose census offers a projection of the estimated extent of the pounds of pesticide used in the US in different states, and indeed an estimated projection of the diffusion of their residue, that demand reflection.  The striking spread of Atrazine, among the deadliest herbicide that is most concentrated in the groundwater of the US, across agricultural states may reflect its use on corn.  But the subsidization of corn and sorghum have so facilitated a dense concentration of sites of cattle feed–some 80 million pounds were used in American crops in 2014, with a rather striking geographical concentration–that the demands to produce corn in abundance for ready markets has led to a concentration of corn-growing and a concentration of Atrazine application that seems to have changed the groundwater supplies of areas of the United States’ most abundant aquifers:



The extremely high concentration of the particularly pernicious pesticide that has been so aggressively marketed by Syngenta is not only dumped in the ground in massive amounts in the ground.  But its traces persist in rivers and streams in 2007 in ways that reflect the expanding scope of its use in agricultural lands including more than half of all corn acreage–two-thirds of sorghum acreage; and up to 90 percent of sugar cane acreage in some states, creating run-off that by agricultural overflow that quite perceptibly pollutes the ambient waters–where it has, Professor Tyrone Hayes has shown, apparently creating sexual abnormalities in amphibian life–conclusively enough for Syngenta to pay $105 million to reimburse cities for the cost of implementing water filtration systems to remove atrazine from drinking water in 2012 to conclude a class action lawsuit, and a multimillion dollar campaign aimed at discrediting scientists suggesting its the dangers of biological mutation its residues have been compellingly argued to cause.  Only long after the EPA had banned the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in homes due its close correlation to ADHD, reduced IQ, and poor cognitive development, the same pesticide was widely used in the Central Valley of California on crops of almonds, walnuts, oranges and alfalfa, ignoring the clear dangers that it poses to farm-workers and in run-off, even though the Pesticide Action Network urged an immediate and complete ban to protect agricultural workers and rural communities. The recent plan to restrict the pesticide’s use in farms came against arguments of its manufacturer, Dow Agrosciences, that its presence in runoff has a “negligible” effect, and noting that it is approved for use in some eight-eight other countries.

The spread of atrazine in streams and waters that has been mapped on the basis of its agricultural use–if hypothetical and based on modeling–indicates the range of its potential spread into the regional groundwater of much of America.



The EPA has unsurprisingly found markedly high concentration in the surface water of those states where Atrazine is applied in greatest abundance, but a notably increased presence of Atrazine in groundwater as well:

Atrazine in Crops:Water EPA for Surface and Ground


Are the evident traces of herbicides such as atrazine that seem evident in the environment similarly passed on through meats from nearby factory farms–and are they indicative of the sorts of attitudes to the environment that factory farming creates?  Indeed, a clear varying of the presence of the pesticide in drinking water is registered in those summer months of greatest runoff of water into the environment in a farming state such as Iowa–

Atrazine Levels Reflect Planting Season in Iowa

–and NRDC has found remarkable correlations in the pesticide’s concentration in watersheds and Public Water Systems that provide drinking water that reflect its greater presence in surface water, and cannot but raise eyebrows as to the changing quality of water and heath of inhabitants of such regions:  even though the high spikes of atrazine in ground water during the months of June and July, when plants are presumably given the highest doses to keep pests off, the lower national averages measured by the EPA allows such unhealthy levels to exist during a few month every year, although at substantial risk to nearby communities.

The picture of water systems and watersheds with hold high concentrations of the pesticide in both “raw” and “finished” water was measured in 2015, showing greater local concentrations in Kansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois, as well Iowa, which suggests the spread of the pesticide’s contamination of regional drinking water supplies.

Atrazine in Stream Water

NRDC (map data from 2015)

IA [Converted] EDIT.eps

There is the sense that a different set of standards has occurred in exposure to health risks in select parts of the nation that reflect the intense application of pesticides like Atrazine in those regions that tolerate factory farms.

The strikingly intense and expansive use of the most popular herbicide Paraquat in crops from corn to sorghum to tubers and as well to sugar–leaves a considerable residue on crops, even if it is designed mostly to eliminate weeds and other plants.  After being both notoriously and extensively sprayed from the air by helicopters in the late 1970s on marijuana and opium fields in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, in a historical roll-out of the pesticide, it has gained wide sales–but also tied to liver, lung, and kidney failure, it has made a huge comeback with the rise of no-till farming at many large farms, broadly distributed across the nation.  Also marketed and produced by Syngenta, the corporation has spent considerable funds to dissociate from studies that suggested the close ties of its residues to neurotoxicity and Parkinson’s disease.


And the remarkable promotion and rise of the agricultural use of Glyphosate–the most popular herbicide across the country–and its residual effects tells a similar story. From 2009 to 2012, is estimated agricultural use was particularly prominent across California’s Central Valley, but expanded across the big farming states of the midwest and eastern seaboard in ways that echoes the distribution of large factory farms.


Untitled 5Glyphosate high 2012

8.  A strikingly similar estimated distribution of the potentially devastating neonicotinoid Imidacloprid–believed a major factor in apiary colony collapse disorder–is scarily similar, if not even more widespread geographically–and has only grown.


CB-FIgure-1The most common herbicide in America, whose application pretty much mirrors the disposition of agricultural lands in the country, was long ago approved by the EPA, the potential carcinogen glyphosate has been used without the degree of harsh criticism that use of atrazine faced after repeated studies indicated its potentially debilitating deformities on wildlife. Yet increasing ties of the herbicide to autism have been terrifying–and led Stephanie Seneff to the recent prediction that half of American kids will be autistic by 2025, and the Environmental Working Group to create a quite sophisticated ESRI interactive map designed to help parents learn whether children’s schools lie within zones where glyphosate is sprayed, and reveal the particular concentration of pesticides in close proximity to schools across the central US and Mississippi.

elementary schoolsEstimated Glyphosate Application/Environmental Working Group/www.ewg.org

EWR legend

The probability that the nonselective herbicide, marketed since 1992 under the trade names designed to appeal to a sense of security–like Roundup, Rodeo, and Pondmaster, actually allows residues to accumulate with carcinogenic effects in produce like soybeans and wheat has been suppressed, despite the mapping of its potential effects.  This may especially have grown Monsanto has introduced GMO glyphosene-resistant crops–greatly expanding the market of an herbicide still widely marketed at Walgreens and other stores, and used in residential areas as well as in agricultural sites.


8.  The rapid rise of GMO crops has encouraged the ascendancy of Roundup, now patented by Monsanto, which has replaced atrazine.  As the effectiveness of atrazine declined, and since many crops no longer tolerate glyphosate, the chemical prohibits the rotation of crops once a common agrarian practice, and suggests a new landscape of over intensive farming, which in corporates herbicide residues–as well, predictably, as glyphosate-resistant weeds in some thirty-five states.

resistant weeds

As much as we demonize nefarious chemical corporations who are the purveyors of poisonous sprays, from Syngenta to Monsanto, perhaps the true culprits lie in the lack of agricultural regulation, and poor economic planning that allowed the rise of factory farms, where the rise of cheap feed created by large-scale agriculture has generated the not-so-astoundingly parallel rise of feedlots in factory farms, in ways that have changed the landscape by which much food is eaten across the country, encouraging a free market of consolidation of farms, without calculation of its costs.

Increased population in suburban areas, often quite close to farmlands, has increased the risk of exposure to known carcinogens and rates of childhood cancer.  The results of such factory farms and economics of subsidized agriculture has led to an increasing number of schools that lie beside areas where GMO crops are planted, and roundup used, in ways that create considerable risks we haven’t bothered to adequately envision, even if they might be easily foreseen.

Total Schools in States within 1,000 feet of roundupd:GMO corn or soybeans

Well-funded teams of publicists and scientists help the PR machines that are run by firms such as Syngenta have effectively blanketed the media not only to undermine –and even created its own PR groups, spin teams, scientists, and “grassroots” groups–in a malapropistic move apparently oblivious of its own odd choice of terminology for a producer of herbicides–that is dedicated to misinform American consumers.  Such a legacy of promoting agribusiness and factory farms seems a lasting legacy from two Bush administrations that will continue to afflict the country’s landscape in future years, as engines of disinformation further distance the meaning of actual debate from the general public.

Based on data that the National Resources Defense Council acquired by a Freedom of Information Act during litigation with the Bush Administration, from the EPA’s “Ecological Watershed Monitoring Program” and “Atrazine Monitoring Program” that they released in August 2009 and from a report on atrazine contamination in surface and drinking water across the Central United States, the hidden topography of atrazine pollution across the United States reflects the dangers that even low-level pollution in groundwater has created in ways that give a new meaning, if with some symbolic appropriateness, to the much-bandied about notion of what constitute our nation’s “reddest” states.


Indeed, the data on the growth of herbicides and pesticides so central to the spread of agribusiness in America, and the consequent reproduction of oversized factory farms, demands mapping and remapping in terms of the prevalence of cancer and other potentially environmentally-induced genetic mutations, and increased incidence of cancer among the young–especially in regions that border beside farmlands were use of Glyphosate and other herbicides or pesticides has rapidly increased.  One study that mapped potential exposure to carcinogens commented on the rising populations near to farmlands in the agricultural powerhouse of California’s Central Valley, the epicenter of a state known for using a large share of all agricultural pesticides and herbicides in the US–to reveal their increasing proximity to residential settlements.


9.  What are some of the ways of taking stock of the considerable damage of such widespread use of carcinogenic or possibly carcinogenic pesticides, both to farmworkers, neighbors, and also in the food chain?

While few contractors provide protective clothing or respirators to migrant or local workers, and many use clothing or cotton bandanas that, when washed with family clothing, risk spreading contaminants within a family, the recent creation of adequate protective costumes farmworkers can easily don, such as the Seguro Protective Suit, are actually designed to be worn everyday by farm workers who work with fruit and and vegetables in California’s Centeral Valley, lest workers be forced to dispose of or wash clothes separately:  the suit features materials able to repel and absorb airborne pesticides that might otherwise settle on skin or clothes, and prevent them from lodging in the lungs of farm workers who would otherwise be exposed to them.  If many workers bring home high concentrations of pesticides into their home and exposing them to steep risks both of birth defects and genetic mutations–despite protective goggles, chemical gloves, or masks.

uitesThe residual pesticides lodged in handkerchiefs and bandanas lack adequate chemical filters and carry carcinogens into the home and belongings; and despite current proposals of the Berkeley Expert Systems Technology Lab, producing or providing workers with adequate protective suiting actually rarely occurs.

10.  The topography of pesticide use is not exactly news.  But the widespread nature of the concentration of factory farms, which approaches terrifying intensity in specific census blocks, seem destined to have an increasing effect on human life.  Despite the lack of acceptance of confirmations of the risk of pesticides like Roundup, due to their corporate production, the diffusion of pesticide use exposes both farm workers and populations to increased medical risk, as well as nearby residents and transportation workers.

The lack of adequate measurement of rising level of risk is shocking.  But its ill effects can be measured and visualized in a recent bey of maps of causes of hospitalization throughout the state, using data generated by the California Health Care Foundation, to map local variations of operations and disease based on state-wide hospitalizations.  Viewing these maps, striking in themselves, is a chance to perform the simple relational algebra to compares the intensity of distributions of farming with the prevalence of illness that might be termed a mental form of map algebra for California alone, without getting into GIS tools, to observe the otherwise unexplained regional and zonal concentration of illness:  even without subtracting those areas of least farming, a picture emerges, even without the prevalence of farming areas in or around the central valley.

One might profitably run through a list of reasons for the radical local variations in the distribution of hospitalization for hysterectomies,

hysterectomies in California

cases of bilateral mastectomies,

bilateral mastectomy

or gall-bladder removals

Gall Bladder Removal CA

in ways that raise clear and pressing questions about the effects of ambient areas.

The different distribution of operations such as coronary angiographies throughout the state rather reflect the relative availability of diagnostic services in specific areas.

coronary angiography

The practice of such “map algebra” involve, properly speaking, creating relations, as by subtraction, of spatial incidence over a set of cells, in order to reveal relations among two temporally sequential or related (or potentially related) raster datasets to reveal interesting homologies, as these maps of NASA’s Land Surface Temperature in North America of 2014 and 2015:


A similar subtraction of individual cells is less able to reveal so clear a contrast of regional variations, perhaps, in the intensity of pesticides and cancer, or the presence of pesticides with the possible likelihood of cognitive impairment and dementia–by Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, or even of depression, and heightened neurotoxicity especially in the case of parquat–would provide a compelling correlation over space and a map that would be difficult to ignore.  One might begin from a negative map of the correlation of diseases to those areas where pesticides are less prevalently used, or a simple ratio between incidence of illnesses in cells correlated to with the prevalence of pesticide use.  In either case, a focus on the increased chance of illnesses in those areas where pesticide use is most intense–and potential carcinogens most intensively applied–demands correlation to hospitalizations as well as to length of chemotherapy treatments.

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Agra, data visualizations

Sleeping Roads, Ancient Highways, and Paper Towns

What is the significance of what names lie on the map?  The plan for a massive reclassification of “ancient” highways on the books but actually dormant in much of the state of Vermont may be a pro-development land grab, but suggests that the struggle for designating once common lands as private property (and resistance to it) are waged on maps.  The recent reclassification of registered but unnamed byways in the state, a mass of roads which were at one time used or previously surveyed as common-law byways but have fallen out of use to different degrees.  In a state where many current town roads remain unpaved, and many more have faded into the largely forested landscape, offers more than evidence of the rise of property development.

It poses a problem of registering the shifting nature of land use, and the tensions between any move by state government to abolish roads long overseen by local municipal corporations.  But as the real estate market in Vermont seems poised to heat up in certain cities, and the state does not want to be seen as introducing obstacles to development or become notorious for arcane property laws, remapping the “ancient” roads of Vermont opts to treat them as ancient, and, far more than unpaved, not part of its future landscape.  The quilt of county regulations of roads was rarely challenged until the introduction of interstate federal highways across the state from the 1970s, but can legal recognition of the varied paths, trails, and common-law roads, long overseen by Selectboards, even able to be transferred to the state?

A Quilt of Counties

What may be read as a sharp challenge to the status of common law property is also an interesting instance of the resurgence of re-mapping as a form of excavating hidden pathways and expressing the state’s historical identity.

For mapping serves here as a way of articulating a challenged relation to the land.  It is particularly striking that in an era when surveying seems displaced by the authority of Google Maps as the preeminant medium of way-finding, the resurgence of resurveying ancient roads in towns across the state of Vermont has offered a way of affirming the existence of dormant “lost highways” to redraw the state’s map.  The retracing of formerly dormant roads suggest a cosynchronous image of the use of space in the state, analogous to the image Sigmund Freud famously conjured in Civilization and its Discontents:  while visiting Rome, the young Freud was suddenly impressed, he remembered, standing at the Capitoline hill, surveying the city’s ruins, by the superimposed nature of multiple destroyed layers in its urban topography, which he saw as a figure of the presence of the past in an individual’s psyche.

Roma Forma Urbis

Freud perhaps presented the forma urbis as a powerful image to assert his own ability to excavate those layers of past trauma, as a master-archeologist of multiple layers, in ways that Vermont’s legislature has set its task of discriminating what common law by-ways will be recognized as “actual” roads that enjoy legal status.  Freud described the coexistence of past chronological layers in Rome as if he was attracted, although also terrified, of discriminating and distinguishing the architectural layering of the city, whose structures seemed built atop one another, revealing hints of destroyed layers partly visible beneath its surface, difficult to comprehend in their entirety, but that simultaneously captivating attention.

Like the cosynchronous presence of multiple pasts in the historical layers in Rome, the roads across Vermont’s “ancient” townships reveal traces of past uses of and motion in space.  The resurveying and submission of these “ancient highways” of the predominantly rural state creates a problem of how to envision the complex of routes competing for federal recognition.  How could these past common-law pathways and byways be mapped, and what would their collective mapping look like?  Should they coexist in a map, or could one imagine something like an interactive map, above a time-sensitive “slider bar”, allowing the viewer to view the different town highways, roads, and unpaved roads over almost three centuries that have constituted the constellation of collective courses of travel across the state?  Or can one better map the state, using new tools of GIS and LiDAR, as a palimpsest of roads and common-law paths, by which to create a blueprint for its future development?  While one should be wary of naturalizing their built environment, and how such pathways served to negotiate the region’s topographic variations, and unbuilt land, one alternative might be to recall the mid-twentieth century surveys of the ancient paths by which the Mississippi river meandered in its basin, although the hope would be to established a more fixed–and far less fluid–relation to space.

Mississipi River Basin and Meander Belt-Ancient Paths

1. Debates about the erasure of once-recognized roads in Vermont towns and hamlets raises questions of what constitutes a sufficient thickness of a cartographical description.  All maps transmit public relations to the land, and the decision of which roads should be preserved in a map–or devolve into the possession of local landowners–raises questions of the status of common-law lands in a still relatively sparsely settled state, whose rural character is increasingly protected.  Vermont has famously preserved much of its woodlands intact, with forested acreage growing considerably since the late 1960s, and public uses are protected in many ways by the unique combination of public and private land-ownership.  Private land-owners in the state are traditionally bound to work with public authorities more closely than many other states, and constraining private property ownership, and particularly doing so in relation to the preservation of public rights-of-way–the inventorying of historical preservation in Vermont placed few obligations on owners, but requires consideration of the impact of any new buildings, demolitions or subdivisions on the state’s historical landscape.  Is the prospect of the disappearance of public roads from the official map, despite llong traditions of their registration in town records–a willful amnesia designed to erase public rights of way?

What recourse exists for the respect of sanctioning such historical amnesia?  It has taken considerable effort to calm concerns among Selectboards and local Aldermen about how the state’s “ancient roads” will be either reclassified or incorporated in the state map in an “Ancient Road Practicum” to assuage fears of the erosion of public rights of way. Regional maps create a distinctly affective relation to place, beyond registering locations:   which unmapped public paths and roads recognized as common-law trails, but often only preserved in property deeds and registers, however remain on the books in Vermont, as all surveyed roads, and raise the problem of what to do with them–and what role the accretion of “Town Highways” long on the books across the state’s municipal corporations will play in an age of private property development, where the flexibility which was characteristic of most common law “roads” that were open for public use have become problematic in that they have been seen as pretexts for lawsuits–and obstacles for regional development.

2.  The legal status once accorded such unnamed ancient roads seems emblematic of a shift in relations to space, and the forests which constitute the majority of Vermont lands, whose patrimony carries clear consequences of stewardship indeed.  For the construal of “roads” is perhaps less the subject of contestation in the re-mapping Vermont’s phantom roads that have devolved into “unidentified corridors” than the construal of use.  The measure now known as  Act 178 claimed to assist towns in determining the “legal status of roads or public rights of way” in their jurisdiction, and provide a protocol to reclassify their legal status as “unidentified corridors” not requiring local maintenance.

The decision to ease the removal of the legal status of such paths provided a protocol to resurvey town highways by 2009, or be effectively voided and erased, based on the lack of their current public use. The response to Act 178 was worthily called attention to by tireless BLDG BLOG blogger Geoff Manaugh, who followed the unfolding of attempts to recover the state’s “lost roadways” with interest since 2008.  Manaugh has written quite sensitively and in detail about the particular resilience of the local in a state that prides itself on the independence of municipal rule and the preservation of local property deeds and local repositories of historical memory.  He followed how the Vermont Agency of Transportation has responded to the interest in clarifying the role of such  “Ancient Roads” to explain protocol to sifting through submissions to be granted legal recognition with special attention to the local remapping of the state by self-styled surveyors who, empowered by GPS, have undertaken to tirelessly re-trace images of ancient roads and to reclaim the rapidly receding past knowledge of the local landscape in Vermont, and to preserve a record of an earlier common-law roads that were registered in the state.

The prospect of discontinuing all unidentified corridors from the map–and the ruling that they will revert to property owners–might be placed more centrally both in the environmental history of this least-populated (and perhaps most decentralized) state of the union, and the new reaction to space that the arrival of developers in the state have posed. The phantom roads preserved raise specific questions of the reception of maps’ contents, and have received considerable local attention as they have become emblematic of a past relation to the state’s local lands. The roads of Vermont have long been classified in relation to local and state authorities, and often depend on public liens of private property, in ways that respected local public usage of roads, and create limits on what statutes bind towns to be responsible for their upkeep.  While usage of roads is not easily mapped, an interactive map, with a slider at its base, would offer a basis for measuring actively used roads over the previous two centuries as a sort of virtual compendium of rights-of-way–that preserves the traditions of land-use, and perhaps affords a palimpsest of local traditions of land-use that may be valuable for determining the course of local development.

The stakes that were driven into the earth for interstate I-89 around 1970 created a break in how cars moved through the state.  For the interstate offered a different sort of road through the Green Mountain state–not without some resistance.  Indeed, a new notion of the “Highway” provided both a new relation to landscape of the state, and introduced a model for travel through its space–something like the major chemins in late nineteenth-century France set a standardized mode of transport linking Paris to the French provinces, as fellow-cyclist Graham Robb recently argued in The Discovery of France.   But whereas Robb described a loss of past ways of moving through the countryside with the rise of a centralized system of roads, the long-decentralized nature of administering Vermont’s roads creates a unique repository of mapping space.  Although the local ecology of roadways and byways in Vermont’s formerly thriving economy  created in a relatively small space a flourishing network of some 4,000 miles of unpaved earth and gravel roads–in addition to some 11,000 “town” roads–around World War One.  Much can be learned sometimes from the legend of a map, sometimes more than from its contents, and especially about attitudes to the land.  The legend to this map of “selected highways” in the state of 1916, for example, illuminates a considerable amount about the legendary back roads of the state of specific relevance to the debate about the permanence or disappearance of the state’s phantom roads, and deserves to be closely read for the heterogeneity of roads and thoroughfares that it noted:

legend 1916 The specific ecology of such network of roads was long maintained by a system of easements to allow public use of byways, and encouraged all town roads to be registered locally–and to not disappear from the books–in ways that seem increasingly to be replaced by the monoculture of the highway.  The creation of a large class of “ancient roads”–roads not comparable in actual age to the common notion of antiquity, but rather than reveal the administrative network of paved itineraries that organized and gave unimaginabel coherence ancient imperial spaces, are associated with notions of “use” judged of almost analogous remove.  They seem unwanted distractions of an bygone era of local municipal corporations.



straight1 DEA/ G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Are these common-law byways rather evidence of a well-tended landscape, as much as a bygone relation to moving through space?  Rather than dealing with the roads, of course, debate about the mappability of Vermont’s ancient dormant roads, focusses on maintaining local public highways in maps.  The very legislation that has destined roads preserved by local ordinance alone from the legal landscape has provoked the growth of interest in re-mapping as a way of asserting local identity and knowledge is far more than a curiosity in cartographical practices; the combination of such research into past roads is profoundly populist in its fervor.  For it suggests a deep shifting the lived relation to the land–and an economic interest in the redefinition of public space, and the value of preserving recorded pathways and preserving town’s existing rights-of-way.

The proposed massive reclassification of roads has elicited fears of a major revision of ways of moving through the land.  Maps are not only repositories of meaning and interfaces, but offer a terrain often actively contested.  The Vermont General Assembly laid the groundwork for a massive reclassification of the roads recorded in local registers as “unidentified corridors” in ways that would render them legally obsolete from July, 2015, and erase the very easements that created the unique combinations of public byways and private property that long distinguished Vermonters’ relation to the land.

The adoption of  Act 178 diminished Selectboards’ authority to determine byways, but in taking the mandate for preserving roads form local municipal corporations, it reframed a local struggle on a cartographical canvas that promoted GIS-enabled amateur cartographers to view their maps in distinctly self-empowering ways.  For while local interests established town highways and common-law byways in ways once mediated by powerful municipal selectmen, the growing demands of the exchange of property and development in Vermont have redrawn relations to the land. Environmentalist George Perkins Marsh once bemoaned the “decline of Vermont” on deforestation, agricultural runoff, overfishing of its rivers, and dams, back in 1864; the threat to strip ancient roads of legal status are less directly a problem of land stewardship, but of the articulation of one’s relation to the land as well as the history of land-use in the state.  If not explicitly environmental, the costs of erasing such unnamed roads and dormant byways create environmental consequences, based not only on a new set of principles for organizing land, but the abandoning of a long-conserved local customs of the conservation of how one moves through space.

It is perhaps interesting to compare how much of France’s provinces were, as late as 1867, not only poorly mapped and known when some 43% of its territory was seen as “dominated by the forces of nature,” from wildlife to forests to shores.  France’s principal roads were defined from Paris; the the nation’s residents often existed in isolation from each other through the expansion of rail before the First World War, when a national system of roads created dominant routes of automotive travel that erased or displaced earlier relations to the land.  Vermont enjoys a far more decentralized notion of the recognition of roadways.  Yet in legal terms, much of Vermont’s terrain has remained relatively uncentralized and were both locally administered and understood.

Such long-dormant paths are not the unmarked tracks taken around or through hedgerows or running through tunnels of vegetation, but rather are routes that shaped places–and are most often found off the roads and in unexpected places, in the partly submerged stone walls, boulders that might have marked the edge of fields, or old paths that create a pattern as off the main roads to reorient ourselves to place and rediscover familiar places, but which may soon revert purely to being private property.  The complex relation to local roads–now reclassified en masse as “unidentified corridors” that will be absent from the State Highway Map, and without legal basis–suggests a new relation between place and space.  But existing maps provide few tools to help us move from one perspective to the other, or from the gradations of paved and unpaved roads, legal trails and discontinued roads, trails, and footpaths which are not so clearly classified or apparent in a view from a state capital.

Norwich Gen Highway map town


3.  The prospect of pruning of the legal roads seems tintended to favor property owners, erasing previous claims to “sleeping” roads lest landowners be surprised that they lie across their property, and create lawsuits that impede projects of future construction.  But it has also opened the possibility of private cartographers’ re-negotiation of their survival.  Vermont’s thinly distributed residents have resisted proposed erasures of rights of way, town highways or byways before selectmen or select boards in the past.  The authority of municipal corporations have gained less economic authority in the state, a standardization of the mapping of property laws has been promoted to prevent the possible lawsuits, considerably expensive and unwanted, that plague many towns, by the “massive reclassification” of town highways no longer in current use.

The decision to extinguish the legal status of unused roads which would devolve into the owners of adjoining lands, reflects the diminished authority of local select boards in the state. The enactment of Act 178 has effectively restricted recognized rights of way, in a gift to property developers desiring to be less hampered by building restrictions.  The massive reclassification of rights of way has offered limited recourse to towns without access to surveyors and attorneys save unpaid volunteers.  The multiple classes of roads–some maintained, other not–were effectively redrawn in deference to property lines and developers, rather than local Selectboards.  Such resistance to remapping place reflects the deep-seated local resistance to projects of development across the state, which, while dismissed by many as essentially romantic, build on deep fears of the loss of localities which survived the paving of the I-89 interstate in the 1970s–and have cathected about the possible disappearance of roads from the map as if they affirmed a loss of local knowledge. The issue turns on the slippage or rather permitted coexistance of both a public right to passage and a private right to landholding that is specific to Vermont in the United States: for while easements on privately held land were long permitted to create public ways in Vermont, in a common law highway creation, the creation of town highways in many cases only require recording an act of surveying, after which it can’t be voided or extinguished even by non-use; the act of collective reclassifying “class 4” highways–town highways for which no statutes exists stipulating that town is obligated to maintain–has only rested with the town, either because of a petition from town residents or a decision of the town’s local select board.

Local property lawyers have hence bemoaned “the curse of Vermont’s phantom roads.” As much as an exercise specific to an underpopulated state, the support for affirming former thoroughfares on the books by local statutes and in town clerk’s registers reveals the deep persistence of local mapping–and assertion of the importance of their mappability.  Vermont possesses more unpaved roads than anywhere in the US, and many residents want to keep it that way.  Perhaps the contest as to whether lost thoroughfares as less deserving of legal recognition–and the state’s “Ancient Roads” discontinued–indicates a shift in attitudes toward the land in a state once predominantly agrarian, but whose former farmlands have been increasingly open to turnover and resale. It mirrors a deep defensiveness, almost proprietary in nature, of the state’s agrarian history embodied in its roads.   For battles of local litigation were openly waged on a cartographical canvas, to defend the prospect of the disappearance of landscapes once described as so deeply known as the back of one’s hand. But that landscape is hardly uniform, as mapped below–in an image of the different ways of moving through Vermont’s almost three-quarters wooded land.  The increased number of paved roads in some regions underly the fears of the prospect of a deep change in attitudes to space and how the landscape is navigated; dirt roads have long distinguished perceptions of the state’s landscape, and the advent of paved roads on the counties near its borders suggest a considerable change in the local landscape.  The majority of Vermont’s roads remained unpaved as late as 1996, revealing the deep-set defensiveness about the dirt road in Vermont, where the 8,000 miles of unpaved dirt roads, overseen by roads commissioners, make the state distinct in the United States, and where the central interstate that is increasingly clogged with traffic and transport rigs has only been around since the early 1970s, when it joined the Eisenhower interstate system.  Unsurprisingly, those regions where the ratios of unpaved to paved roads are significant, the interest in defining ancient roads has been particularly pronounced.  For such roads constitute regional icons that are inseparable from a map–and defines the integrity of local landscapes.  Whereas more than 14,000 miles of roads exist in the state, only a fifth belong to the state highway system—roughly 2,700 miles. public assets, Where the Roads Go Static version of Public Assets’ rollover map available here, from GIS data of the Vermont Agency of Transportation

The uneven presence of paved roads concentrated around Lake Champlain, the state capital, and the state’s edges in “Where the Roads Go,” a map taken from the public maps of a public agency responsible for the maintenance of state roads, reveal shifting attitudes to space and in the human geography of Vermont’s predominantly forested lands, as well as profound differences in how space is passed through that come increasingly into evidence in central Vermont, where they are highly valued.  A more relevant map would be, of course, of road use, but that would require a complex tracking of roads by sensors or real-time maps.  But the above map suggests clear pockets of the conservation of dirt roads–and the surprising local persistence of an earlier relationship to space, not registered in land maps.  Indeed, the unique metamorphosis of most state highways that shift to town roads while passing through Vermont towns offer evidence of the uneven integration of a state-wide road system into a network of town highways. Unsurprisingly, in municipalities where paved roads are in the minority, after examining data in the rollover map of Public Assets Institute, “ancient” roads has been contested. Because this rollover map plugs the GIS data of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, a public agency responsible for the upkeep of rads, and omits those roads labelled “unimproved/primitive” or “untraveled,” the addition of ancient roads would only increase the ratios of unpaved to paved roads.  In many counties of Vermont, the sense that la diritta via era smarrita has encouraged the redesignation of “unidentified corridors” as official town roads, and the resurveying of byways in danger of being definitively written off the books once absorbed into privately owned property lots, as such “unidentified corridors” without proper names vanish from existing state maps.

5.  The growing demand for a standardization of property deeds encouraged the rewriting the legal status of Vermont’s byways–and the reasons for which formerly sanctioned public roads would continue to remain on the books and to be recognized as legal roads.  And the race to map common-law byways was the subject of Geoff Manaugh‘s post, which provides the starting off point for a contemplation of the power of how a state like Vermont is mapped, and exactly how adequately “thick” a description might be preserved in a highway map of the state. 2.  Although many local statutes to maintain and create “highways” have long remained the same, the retaining of the term “highways” pertaining to roads that towns were granted authority to legally create on the basis of a survey from 1808 has made it difficult for the term to not be a topic of deep misunderstanding–as does the declaration by the town that the “highway” was open, even if the town select-board did not place it on the state highway map.  But the place of such Ancient Roads, however frustrating or obfuscating they might appear to modern property deeds or development, are artifacts of a local ecology of mapping, revealed in a local survey of the range of highways in Vermont mapped in 1939 in Berlin, Vt., outside the state capital, which discriminated thirteen varieties of roads, from “state highway” to “untraveled road” and “primitive road.” These classes of roads are continued in the five classes of roads as they are currently mapped–the fourth and fifth lower ranks of which have been recently subsumed as “Unidentified Corridors.”


The parallel existence of four classes of state-supervised highways, town highways and county roads had been clarified in the legend of a 1916 map of the state’s highways, before funding for Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921,  the Golden Age of paving of roads from the 1920s and long before stakes were set in the forests for the paved artery of I-89 after 1970 that eventually allowed big rids like eighteen-wheelers to carry goods across counties without encountering any steep grades, and to leave trails of pollutants from drip to fossil fuel emissions across the state.

legend 1916 1919 mapVermont Highway Dept./Fish and Game Dept. State Map (1916)

Continuing questions prompted by the semantic slippage between “state highways” and town highways were revisited in 2006.  The passage of what was later known as Act 178 promised to reclassify the roads recorded in local registers as obsolete and vanish from the landscape into homeowners’  property deeds if they weren’t approved by July of 2015.  The hope was to open the state to further real estate exchanges, declaring earlier highways null and void, to clear the slate for a new relation to the land by cleansing the map of what many saw as the true basis to help local development and growth, dismantling the local diversity of mapping of common-law by-ways by their massive reclassification. The approaching July 2015 deadline mandated by Act 178 has however encouraged several self-styled surveyors to dedicate themselves to effectively excavating “ancient roads” by reviewing town records and re-surveying their courses by GIS so that they may recover former common-law byways suddenly threatened with erasure and mandated obsolescence, and to resurrect past “highways” which property owners did not want to recognize as rights of way. For the persistence odd amalgam of local statutes and common law in Vermont has so confused the question of the uniformity of landowners’ titles and property claims that it was seen as necessary to guarantee homeowners from not having to learn about undeclared thoroughfares that once crossed their lands.  (The confusion encouraged a new map comprehending those “clearly observable” byways and highways, but nonetheless acknowledging the ability of towns to declare “unidentified corridors” as a class of roads–lest they be extinguish from being grounds for legal action.)  The longstanding unpaved highways in much of the state were so much part of its landscape that the prospect of voiding these thoroughfares’ legal status has provoked a resurgence of counter-mapping to take cartographical note–if not possession–of corridors, thoroughfares, and sleeping roads whose “un”-mapping constituted a deep local loss in a historical patrimony. image001 University of Vermont Landscape Change Program/Vermont State Archives

The lack of clarity has lead many to seek to reclassify such “unidentified corridors,” lest they be swept from the map as public rights of way and effectively . . . lost.  “Maps Don’t Show Vermont’s Sleeping Roads,” announced a banner headline of Yankee Magazine alarmingly back in 2009.  The article describing the dilemma that although most landowners want to leave roads open to cross-country skiers or snowmobiles:  if they are annoyed by finding beer cans and garbage as the snows recede, the considerable imprecision of where such roads lie across privately owned lands has created disputes between not only hikers and homeowners to a conflict between private property owners and conserving Vermont’s fading agrarian past–and opens up a shifting relation to the land’s use as the agricultural society that defined the state in the 1970s seems definitively on the wane, despite the survival of former cornfields and roadside farm-stands.

The dynamic of documenting Vermont lands may reflect the outlier nature of Vermont as a site of local towns’ record-keeping.  Town clerk offices and town halls in the once largely agrarian state have retained written records that document any road which had been surveyed in the state stay, and the legal recognition accorded this network of hidden roads or planned was directly addressed by the state legislature in 2006:  but for the first time, Act 178 introduced a window through this July for submitting any additions to the map–fashioning a feasible protocol for adding “ancient roads” to the state’s general highway map.  It has encouraged the drawing of a counter-map responding to the imperiling of the past landscape of the state, giving voice to the unrecognized in the compilation of lists of sleeping roads lest they atrophy from collective consciousness and be removed from a historical patrimony.  To be sure, only in select regions of the country where systems of record keeping are still stored in town record books and vaults, and localities retain a certain preeminence that the local government respects from having to take the time to absorb, can the confusion about what constitutes a highway or “open road” exist.

But the semantic sedimentation around the word “highway” seems only half of the problem, sine their existence is the bugbear that developers face.  For the existence of roads can continue if they remain long on the local books, “even if nothing of them remains except a musty record book in a book in the town clerk’s office,” as Paul S. Gillies of Montpelier puts it in his recent Ruminations, and if “they only survive as legal ideas.”  The poor maintenance of town highways in the state already muddies the issue of their maintenance.

6.  Does the umbrella term of “highways” create both a contextual and conceptual problem of what remains on the Highway Map, proving far more confusing to the question of processing where a road lies and who bears responsibility for its upkeep?  What is a road, anyway?  Well, who wants to know?  The debate about what constitutes a “town highway” has provoked local reluctance to relinquish routes not visibly used, so the question really turns on the construal of use–and questions of  converting easements attached on privately owned land that was prevsiously made to public use.  Can such easements that were made for “reasonable and convenient” “public use,” asked Alexander Hood in 2010, be converted to “state use,” and can the process outlined in Act 178 prevent local statutes from being adopted to reclassify “unidentified corridors” as a permanent road, and thereby further cloud the hopes for its extinction?  This is certainly what the petitioners who intend to re-open the designation of “unidentified corridors” in the state had hoped to achieve. “The challenging task is a recovery of lost knowledge once familiar to many residents of the town, and then lost through unintended neglect,” Paul Gillies has advised local map makers who had volunteered to undertake the “worthy task” of excavating town highways and old roads, and advising them to undertake to document the “full history of the highways of your town” in a “fully-annotated, correct map of the road network” for future use. For what constitutes an “ancient road” is itself of course a matter of perspective.  If ancient roads embody an idiosyncratic Vermonter sense of the antique, they are no doubt a consequence of the perceived stakes of a loss of earlier inhabitation of space. The recent attempt to rediscover the roads that have remained off most maps of the state, and were never listed on official Highway Maps, reveal a lattice-like network hibernating common-law roads that were ever proposed in the public record of routes from the reign of George II.  A proviso in a dormant law has long granted all towns authority to enshrine laws on the books allowed common law transit routes to long accumulate across a state, ensuring many seasonal roads to be used in alternation by Vermonters.  Yet as insurance companies have come flatly to refuse to write title deeds in certain towns, and some towns to deny applications to build additions to their houses outright, what as emerged as a site of access to a historical patrimony of how the land was lived have threatened to significantly dampen an active real estate market.  The hope for relabelling such common-law rights-of-way as “unidentified corridors”–in the words, allowing sleeping roads to be identified and some to be added to official town highway maps, while allowing others to be stripped from the official books and wither away. Act 178 was adopted to strip the state map of the legal baggage of surveyed roads that have long fallen out of use, as if they were a system of vines or unwanted underbrush, in hopes to facilitate the future fungibility of a brisk traffic in property sales by minimizing home-owners’ risk, it has set off an alarm for the a reassessment of local roads–lest “unidentified corridors,” not only be stripped of legal status, but disappear into the local landscape rather than provide active precedents for easements.

Mutatis mutandi, the dream of assembling the hidden or virtual lattice of unused roads and hidden pathways across old agricultural lands has become a goal in itself and a sort of hidden patrimony of the state, as individual nameless roads have been recovered from title deeds and town records and relocated in the landscape by GIS.  Which goes to show, debate that focusses on the addition or subtraction of places from a map–and the map is accorded explicit authority as a repository of memory:  there is a strong sense that what is or is not included in the final version is perceived to have potential consequences far greater than folks might usually feel.  Whether the network of unused roads which still on the books constitute an actually active repository of knowledge or a hindrance to property sales is immaterial to such surveying–Act 178 prompts of a loss of the way-finding and foresting long central to Vermont lore in a state whose landscape still carries the imprint of its agrarian origins even as property sales increase, and the mappability of byways is increasingly contested as impinging on homeowners’ property rights.

Sleepin Road in Vt? Brookfield, Vermont (Photography by the author)

The authority attached to the practice of surveying–and Vermont was quite intensively surveyed since the eighteenth century–invested an authority in written records that are increasingly being supplemented by re-surveying, GPS, and even flyover LiDAR surveys to mark  abandoned “ancient” public roads across the state, and often across forests and private property, was increasingly seen as more than a hindrance to encourage a market of local real estate and development:  for as the number of non-industrial landowners in the state, almost 80% covered by forest, has grown consistently from the early 1980s–and by a third in the fifteen years from 1983 to 1998 alone–the briskness of property transactions in recent years have provoked a challenge to the sense of its spatial order where the demand for the fungibility of land may lead the recorded roads once preserved in public records to disappear.

The authority of an apparent atrophying of local knowledge about place–a prized possession in a state of relatively strong localism and regional autonomy as well as pride–has been met with a range of remapping place with an energy often not seen, or imaginable, by a crew of retirees who have acted as a crew of self-annointed local historians. The identification of ancient roads by GIS systems or LiDAR has mustered an increasingly ideological weight in Vermont.  For in recent years, as a deadline for filing requests for the recognition of roads, increasing individuals have sought to remap routes, acting as self-styled renegades in the tradition of the Green Mountain Boys’ brigade–not to fight with arms for their land, but to reclaim place as they re-survey Vermont’s ancient roads to inhabit the region’s historical patrimony.

The search for old trails and ancient roads that were filed with local town councils over time created a sedimentation of routes that once open for review have helped generated excitement to reclaim place in a world registered by GoogleMaps.  The shifting sense of the social that the elimination of accumulated rights of way suggest an unnecessary challenge to the ecology of information in the state in a state where some counties remain 94% forested, and the state is the second least populated. The acts of reclaiming roads have created a drama worthy of attention because of the local efforts of remapping that they have inspired.  In places such as Huffington, VT, a group of ten volunteers taking the defensive-sounding name of the “Ancient Roads Committee” composed of a GIS analyst, ski patroller, and biologist for the Audubon Society, moved by their ties to the local landscape, retirees have emerged as latter-day Green Mountain Boys to remap some 138 roads in the region to enshrine their legal recognition.  Their ringleader, Aaron Wortheley has hurled such defensive inspirational battle cries as “For us it’s about old maps, history, and a way to better understand the town.”  The battle is met on the ground and by archival research in town records.  The former forester Norman Arseneault, of Granville, VT–with dirt roads of 17.6 miles, and paved roads of 11.9, and adjoining the Broadleaf Wildnerness–has worked assiduously to compile a survey of “ancient roads” to be submitted for consideration as “ancient,” and which, even if not enshrined as permanent rights of way by the state legislature, will be self-published for locals and visitors. Even if many such “roads” may remain GIS shapes, lacking names, waiting to be placed on a topographical map, and were only mentioned in the 1850s, by remaining on the books they have either become spots that seem in need of pruning, to use an agrarian metaphor of gardening, or preservation–either being fetishized as historical remnants or providing access to a receding past.  In the town of Hinesburg, VT, near Melbourne–dirt 34.9 miles, paved 29.1–the local Selectboard is working to identify roads that “state law dictates that towns retain the rights to . . .  whether they have remained in use or not,” even if the only evidence of their founding remains in the town vault, establishing an ‘Ancient Roads Committee’ specifically dedicated to reviewing old records to map old roads, working to reclassify “unidentified corridors” lest they become defunct, and absorbed into private lands.

7.  What generated this efflorescence of map making and feelings of local bereavement at the reclassification of unused thoroughfares?  The roads lie between common law usage and thorns in the side of a booming market of private-property.  This still-unmapped aporia of legal interpretations have created a cartographical combat zone about the relation of roads’ relation to space.  For only the preservation and legally binding nature of local geographical land deeds have documented the rights of way being collated to fashion a palimpsest of phantom roads that remain on the books across the state, and provide a legible record of how it was once inhabited in the past–even if listed in coordinates by eighteenth-century surveyors and have gone unused for over 150 years. Much as “paper towns” that exist only in maps were designed by cartographers to provide protection against cartographical copycats, but acquire an after-life after being encoded in maps, the hope is that mapping such “phantom” roads may prevent them from disappearing into the local landscape.  (Randolph Center on Route 66, below Mt. Ascutney, and enjoyed fame as an early site for the capital since it stood at the geometric center of the state–it remained a contender for being its capital into the 1800s–but is now barely noticed by drivers save as an intersection with one General Store.)  Popular YA author John Green loved the cartographic conceit of the “paper town”–an invented place on a map existing only on maps, devised to serve as a copyright trap, rather than point of orientation–and adopted it as an idea for the setting of a road story of teenagers trying to measure their own relation to the world. The conceit of the “paper town” raises questions about the world as it exists on a map, and its existence at an angle to reality, in the heads of his characters, as it becomes something of a basis for self-discovery for its protagonists in Paper Towns, who have to loose themselves until they can find themselves in the final weeks at the end of High School:  the voyage to the invented town of Agloe, devised by cartographers Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers at a crossroads as a sort of cypher  composed only from their own initials, not only existed as a site that “was imagined, and then real, and then disappeared, [before it was] then imagined again in my story,” as Green said, but suggests the gap between all maps and reality.   If Agloe seems the secret of the mysterious Margo, and the most complex of clues she leaves for her repeated disappearance in her teen years, it becomes a gateway to a lost world. The sleeping roads of Vermont, if long absent from any official state maps, provide an important site for local contestation in a state designated in its entirety among the “endangered historical places.” warren trail at falls A trail near Waitsfield, VT; photograph by author GranvilleAncientRoads17web Town Log Book of local property deeds in Granville, VT; photograph by Geoff Manaugh

Mapmakers have long invented the “paper towns”–places that exist only on paper–as a form of copyright that allowed them to spy copycat mapmakers who relied on their own inventions: such “copyright traps” have been so common in print that the wised up editors of OpenStreetMaps hence actively discourages its contributors from relying on past printed maps, but only rely on images of Google Earth or live photographic feeds to limit errors that might otherwise creep into OSM maps:  and the idea that OSM would introduce errors into maps is distinctly unpalatable.

Debates as to whether such “sleeping” routes and ancient roads belong on the map, or are more properly permanently expunged from it, have raised the stakes about the worth of including “unused” roads on maps. The resurrection of such abandoned or only-registered roads have gained attention as they have emerged as obstacles to a brisk traffic in property–and as that traffic is seen as a burial of the deeds and customs that affirmed local autonomy and knowledge in the state–in ways that may lead them to be definitively expunged from the maps that seek to define a new standard in the fungibility of property and real estate.  While the debate is about what is included in the map, the lines on which the debate are drawn reflect different notions of land-use.  The combat lines in this cartographical struggle are as difficult to disentangle as the roads from the leafy landscape.  For as much as create a coherent map of actual thoroughfares, the archeology of abandoned pathways and proposed a common-law roads evoke a spatial imaginary and palimpsest of Vermont’s former economies by a range of mapping techniques.  The excavation of these roads document began as a way of defending property rights against claims, and calming homeowners uneasy with the quirks of local laws, but the official appeal of the state legislature to invite claims to roads has fostered an attempt to retrace these ancient roads as a sort of “commons,” if it began as an attempt to scrub the cartographical palimpsest across fields and forests that might be invoked as local legally binding precedents. Written records have provided a durable way to retrace the byways and highways surveyed or noted as a matter of public record from the founding of  Vermont’s towns, cities, villages, grants, and gores that extend in the public record from the reign of King George II.  But do these byways need to be preserved, if the state’s economy has definitively moved from its predominantly agricultural past?  Since Vermont’s General Assembly resolved in 2006 to redefine the ownership, responsibility for, and access to those “unidentified corridors” that were “not otherwise clearly observable by physical evidence of their use as a highway or trail,” and which might devolve to property owners.  Since then, something like a charge has emerged for using such records to recognize roads “not clearly observable as highways or trails on the landscape.” recalled Jonathan Croft of the Vermont Agency of Transportation‘s Mapping Organization.

Is the charge to affirm the existence of those “unidentified corridors” not on town highway maps is a peculiar instance of the persistence of the local in the world of maps?  It may also have been encouraged by the familiarity of the landscapes in a rich tradition of regional mapping, and a sense of the value of the preserving the local in a landscape that some fear to be soon lost. The impending end-date of Act 187 created something like a clarion call for the emergence of local historians to reclaim the lost landscape through unidentified corridors and ancient roads to preserve them in the Highway Map of thoroughfares to be  subsequently published, and uncover the lost landscape that digitized maps failed to register or comprehend–although a field of green in which I-89 runs like a ribbon of red from St. Albans to Montpelier to Brattleboro has created a basis for transport in the state.


8.  Remapping the land is perhaps the clearest way of taking it back for local cities, who have increasingly encouraged the resurveying of local roads.  The deadline of July 1, 2015 has provoked cartographical investigations of localities and a scrutiny of past maps, deeds, and manuscript records to serve as mediums to let land speak, and provoked an Ancient Road Practicum for all local governments, in an attempt to describe the hopes for augmenting the inclusion of all legally recognized public rights of way on new state highway maps. The project of pulling back a corner on an almost lost history of the rural back roads of state increasingly preoccupied about the danger of traffic on its overcrowded interstates, the new image of the state is particularly exciting, and especially interesting as a bottom-up exercise of collective mapping, expanding the notion of the “highway” in a debate about what constitutes a public road. Whereas many of these roads were not registered in Google Maps or on official state maps, the re-mapping of nameless roads seems to have grown within the gap of how the way we write maps:  as absence of local knowledge became increasingly clear in LandSat images, roads could not be seen cannot be seen but within the almost epistemic chasm of map making styles incarnated between a Google Maps API and the openly editable OSM state map.  Given these alternatives, the prospect of losing the accumulated knowledge seems a deeply alienating prospect of alienating oneself from how the land was once lived, already stripped from the sanitized image Google generates.  In contrast to the information the web of local roads offer about how the land was once lived, the loss of such nameless ancient roads seems a loss of a historical patrimony of micro cultures of mapping that once distinguished the territory of the state.  The absence of a diversity of mapping abilities in the monoculture of Google Maps remains striking.  But so is the difficulty of mapping a region more defined by rivers, in most maps, than by roads, where rivers and mountains have long provided the primary forms of orientation to the topography and other byways were only ever intended to be known to the locals–rather than openly mapped for housing development.

cnetral VT around Waitsfield OSM2 VT Such a contrast was, of course, not the original intent of the decision to include these trails and local town highways to Vermont’s General Highway Map.  When Vermont’s General Assembly passed Act 178–“Adding Ancient Roads to the General Highway Maps“–they perhaps intended to winnow the number of roads on the books.  Yet, as said above, the revisionary Act of streamlining has opened doors to remapping, and provoked a fighting ground where paper maps become weapons whose arguments are effectively rehabilitated to present a more polyvocal map of the second most uninhabited state in the union.  The point isn’t to offer better commute routes to Burlington or Montpelier, of course but rather to uncover how the hills were once inhabited and navigate what has most often become landscape by following the few surviving clues.  The effort has offered an impetus to a way of rediscovering the landscape that was lost, as local legal battles are increasingly enacted–or projected–onto a cartographical canvas, by a heterogeneous variety of mapping tools including GIS, old maps, LiDAR, and on-the-ground surveying to reawaken a network of “sleeping” roads from local registers, property deeds, and tax records not only a romantic quest for part of an earlier agrarian economy or protecting rapidly receding a body of common law rights of way. 6.  It is as if a window of resistance was opened against the local view of inhabiting space that have been preserved over time, barely visible on Google Maps or the and the carving of property lines.  In this context, what constitutes a road is a topic of contentious debate.  The idea of comprehending and reviewing all legally established highways has created the category of “unidentified corridors” stripped the legal status of unwanted roads, perhaps running across private properties, even though they were laid out by due process in the past.  The network of these roads that the state wants to be pruned from official roads goes beyond the roads that tied towns, mostly founded in the late eighteenth century, that linked rural areas, but were proposed over two hundred years in ways that suggest the accumulation of a relation to a lived landscape around the rivers and across jurisdictional regions. Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 9.25.40 AMScreen Shot 2015-07-20 at 9.24.57 AM The use of paper records as repositories of memory may be limited to specific areas in the United States such as Vermont, but provide tools that can be interestingly paired with GIS and LiDAR tools to record a changed relation to the land of “lost highways” that have heretofore gone unmapped in state records, but still remain legally recognized in the state.  In Vermont, the declaration of past roads not only stays on the books, but has proved to gain considerable appeal as a way a point of access to the not entirely departed past:  for the records of such “sleeping” roads suggests an enticingly new way of occupying the land.  For even with the long existence of printed maps and public surveying, local trails, logging roads, non-paved byways and commercial roads not noted in a tradition of state mapping that privileges Vermont’s major thoroughfares, railroads, rivers, quarries, and streams–rather the trails that often lie along or beside them.  The question is whether these roads deserve preservation in a map respected as a true repository of memory, or what might be a place to preserve the precedents of local knowledge of place that a monoculture of mapping would effectively erase. FullSizeRender-15 Photo by the Author

Indeed, the romance of the recovery of the informal byways and common thoroughfares hearken back to an ideal of common law land ownership, at odds with the individual claims to property with which maps are often associated:  the uncovering of “sleeping” roads, or what the current state has labeled “unidentified corridors,” lest they be endowed with legitimacy, are a way of romancing the past of the local at the same time as it seems on the verge of vanishing from our national landscape, particularly focussed in a state at last count nearly eighty percent forest.

Vermont map legend 1796 “A correct map of the state of Vermont : exhibiting the county and town lines, rivers, lakes, ponds, mountains, meetinghouses, mills, public roads &c.” (1796)   Library of Congress

The effective cartographical reconstruction of such once well-trammeled routes in a landscape of green mountains uncovers the division of the state’s mosaic of counties by the current parcellation of its largely rural and forested expanse along private property lines, disrupting the notion of common greens and pathways along which towns were long functionally organized–rather than an inorganic understanding of individual property lots, that might be understood in terms of the best view, or remove from highway noise, but are often removed from history.


9.  The attention to both serves as a basis to negotiate the common-law rights-of-way in Vermont’s countryside, and indeed to explore the habitation of past landscapes that might seem increasingly removed from current conditions of land use.  The recuperation of such “lost” or “sleeping roads” across the state of Vermont began as a legislative exercise in trimming legal precedents, but its expansion in recent years seems to have stemmed from an active and collective effort of refamiliarization with the lived landscape that proves both the power of the paper map–and the power of paper records to orient oneself to a landscape that was once lived–and the interest in proposing new additions to the promised revised map of the State Highways that will be the result of this call for towns to curtail the plethora of local roads–“unidentified corridors,” to not even grant them the standing of roads or highways–that once provided a basis by which to understand space.

One is struck by the active heterogeneous culture of mapping, drawing on both written records, new surveys, exploration, and remote sensing in the recuperation of a lost landscape of the Vermont hills, working to recover a landscape of such “sleeping roads” which often lack names or were only proposed, but which are all of a sudden being re-mapped lest they be lost. As if a low-tech form of collective mapping that hearkens back to the days before open source data, the composition of a guide to lost roads and byways that were, of necessity, locally excavated, suggests an oddly retrograde–if ultimately postmodern–compilation of geographic knowledge, which privileges the local far above LandSat imagery, and seeks to discover past testimonies of land-use as much as the condition of the current network of state highways by rereading and breathing life into long unused surveys to find precedent of past land-use.  The more minor roads that were long noted in logbooks of local towns were rarely if ever included in early state maps.  Such maps were largely limited to placing the major thoroughfares in relation to rivers and train routes.  The attempt to uncover evidence and precedents of common use of the ancient roads of the state of Vermont has proceeded not like out of a perceived good of public history, but the relative nuisance that the accumulation of so many unused roads and trails enjoy as being on the books.

The hope from which state legislators acted by setting a decade for the recovery of such “sleeping” or ancient roads in local log books was to trim the local sedimentation of unpaved byways rarely are, registered in local repositories and only now recovered.  But the romance of the recovery of old roads that have been abandoned within the current landscape may also lie in the hope to rectify the “false totality” offered viewers by Google Maps or Earth View, or the complex relations between topography and noted roads in the state map that takes into account the long-term history of land use.  The map below was made for drivers, indeed, who have little interest in the unpaved byways inaccessible to their vehicles, but the monoculture of mapping it imposes is quite limited view, given its omission of locally accumulated geographic knowledge.  For no doubt the increasing claims of totalistic coverage of contemporary mapping media turned cartographical scrutiny to what the state has referred to as its “ancient” roads, ones no longer used or kept up, as well as the rapidly receding sense that old timers share in where those “ancient” roads lay.

The hope of legislators who enacted to clarify their legal existence, given that most only exist conceptually–and may be either in utter disuse or perhaps never even constructed, although surveyed.  For the translation of what is surveyed into a living cartographical tradition is by no means evident.

10.  While the majority of these roads were simply never transcribed with comprehensiveness, perhaps, no doubt, because they remained of local concern and were administered by municipal Selectmen or later Selectboards, the standards of common law by which they were recognized are now in the sights of state legislators.   Despite the demand to recuperate the records of all roads officially surveyed–even if they were never built or paved, or are not maintained–within the collective rights of way  belonging to a landscape rapidly receding from public memory. The archeology of ancient roadways was a consequence, rather than ever being an intent, of legislators’ desire to protect homeowners from claims brought regarding the existence of thoroughfares that homeowners did not know to have existed.  But their compilation triggered a collective familiarization with remapping a landscape as it was once locally known, and recreating the maps of Vermont regions and towns.  One important back story of the remapping of unwanted roads is in the growing value of home-ownership across the state, evident per capita income in the state–now the twenty-fifth in the nation, with an average income in five places of over $35,000, creating some pockets of clear wealth, and a substantially higher home ownership rate than the USA–albeit also a state with relatively low income differentials.  In a state with long claims to local autonomy, the economic upswing in has provoked a shifting relation to place, rooted in the security of land ownership against legal claims, manifested in the new interest in erasing the recognition of ancient roads.

2009 Northeast INcome Distribution by county Median Household Income in Northeastern United States, 2009 per capita income Vt Per Capita Income across eastern United States, 2012

A quite considerable gain in county-by-county median incomes in the northeast between 1980 and 2010 were located in Vermont, whose individual counties colored in dark green are among the greatest growth of median incomes in the nation:

1980-2010 Patchwork Nation/Jefferson Institute

The states of both Vermont and its slightly wealthier neighbor, New Hampshire, registered the largest gain in median incomes and growing property tax values, placing an increasing premium on the protection of homeowners–according to a 2005-9 visualization of the Tax Foundation.  Even if this map has been accused of cartographic deceptiveness, as it exhausts at a “low” rate of $2,000, it colors Vermont, once considered a poor state, a solid dark blue at the time Act 178 was first passed.

newimage-1 from TaxProf Blog/Paul Caron

The division of the state by “designated downtowns” in red, villages in tan, and centers of economic growth in green suggests the landscape of economic revitalization Smart Growth imagines and a project of the consequent transformation of the state:

econ growth vt At the same time, much of Vermont has long insisted on the value and preservation of the local–manifested in new ways in both the anti-factory farm movement, the foodie prizing of a Vermont Fresh Network, and local stewardship of lands such as the Vermont Land Trust and Woodlands Organization.   While not linked in any formal way to one another, boosted by the wedding of an environmental as well as a preservationist ethic, many of these organizations are based on a new concern with the loss of a traditional sense of place and for which the cartographical rehabilitation of what were once “sleeping” roads provides a powerful cartography to the highway map.  Any consideration of the amplification of the search for local roads that was provoked by the desire to set a limit on what can be recognized as a legal claim to a road in the state, in part to protect the sale of property deeds without concern of the future declaration of pathways or thoroughfares as open to public access. But the desire to winnow out the number of legally recognized roads in the state–and reduce the number on the books–seems to have led the Assembly to seek to clarify which “ancient roads” towns wanted to preserve, and which “ancient roads” would be left unmapped, and become “Unidentified Corridors” that would cease to be public roads–or town highways–and should cease to be difficulties to private land-owners by remaining possible public rights-of-way.  Yet the “unidentified corridor” offers valuable evidence about how the land was once occupied.  In ways that test of the power of the accumulation of a surfeit of written documentation of roads in an age of Google maps–the limits of whose accuracy of rural regions in Vermont I’ve earlier noted on this blog–the remapping of these roads by spirited amateur cartographers combines local history, foresting, and oral history, with a love of the local to re-survey lost paths and scratch the surface of a past landscape in unprecedented detail.

11.  The reliance on manuscript maps to excavate the hitherto “unidentified corridors” and concealed thoroughfares of Vermont–routes that, while legally confirmed as roads, are overgrown with greenery and hardly navigable to a car–remind us of the peculiarity of resilience on repositories of paper maps to recover traces of roads rapidly receding into the landscape, as they also provide a basis for breathing life into the lost landscapes of transit.  The excavation of heretofore “unidentified corridors” or “sleeping roads” in Vermont is a curious archeology of the deep history of place:  long recognized in property deeds and towns’ Survey Books, the investigation into the ancient roads of the state stand at the intersection between large-scale maps and the local terrain, and offer an interesting case in the persistence of paper maps and local surveys in an age of digital mapping. vt_1795_Carey_200KIL2 The peculiarities of what survives–and what doesn’t–within maps that might be taken as comprehensive cartographical authorities.  The case of deciding what counts–or what doesn’t–as a town highway may depend on the perspective of the user, but reminds us of the peculiar power of maps.  The collective memories that are synthesized within any map’s surface make the a repository of information:  the invitation to find evidence of the traces of ancient or sleeping roads may lie most clearly in written town records, if they must be teased out of the landscape in order to be officially recognized, and they have been recovered in light of the ultimatum of the state legislature to review the existence of any road legally recognized in the past two hundred years by the lapsed date of July 1, 2015. Despite apparent state hopes to erase such “unidentified corridors”–those town highways which were once legally recognized by local governing bodies–and banish their legal precedent has galvanized interest in ancient roads revealed tensions not before so explicit between Vermont’s legislative body and local jurisdictions by actively pruning “ghost” or “sleeping roads” from legally recognized roads.

The compilations of roads locally preserved on paper in Vermont towns are, to use a rural metaphor, being pruned and weeded in an attempt to create a uniform authoritative record of roads municipalities are responsible to preserve.  Indeed, the invitation that Vermont’s General Assembly extended in 2006 opened the doors to an unprecedented amplification of byways that had fallen off the official books, inviting localities to define routes on the record books stored in vaults and past deeds resting in town halls over the next nine years–or with the cut-off date of July, 2015.  For in confirming Act 178, the legislature has openly encouraged a search for previously “unidentified corridors” or unmapped thoroughfares among self-styled local historians combing through local archives to assume the status of mediums of the dead to remap lost ancient roads and otherwise unmarked byways for the preparation of a revised state map–with the proviso that no future claims to add roads be accepted or recognized.  And the considerable frenzy of cartographical feeding before this deadline unearthed hitherto unknown layers of “unidentified corridors,” which, even if not registered in the revised Highway map, will survive in local compilations rather than be forgotten for good. What became known as the now-notorious  Act 178 has necessitated several subsequent glosses of clarification, because its meanings were not immediately or clearly locally understood.  It established a window of ten years for the locally inventoried “ancient” roads from 2006, designating July 2015 as the final date for submission of roads that might be legally recognized.  The flurry of attention responded that followed represents a particularly compelling case of the resilience of the local in a state that prides itself on the independence of municipal rule by selectmen–or selectboards–and the preservation of local property deeds and local history.  The Vermont Agency of Transportation an entire page to explain protocol and state of play for adding such “Ancient Roads” to future General Highway Maps–not to gain aid in their upkeep, but grant them legal recognition, but discontinue all unidentified corridors which will revert to property owners.  Such a pruning of the legal road network seems to favor property owners, it also opened the possibility of private cartographers’ re-negotiation of their survival:  the state legislature has allowed ten years for the local inventorying of local “ancient” roads in 2006, known locally but not noted on state maps, by designating July 2015 as the final date for submission of prospective roads. The idea is theoretically interesting, because it raises question, in a logical sense, about the mappability, or about how many roads it makes sense to include on a map–putting aside the clear value of an cartographical cleansing for attracting non-local homeowners to the state.  The possible absences in the mapping of roads in such internet-based map providers are readily imaginable, and makes the intensity of mapping “unidentified corridors” particularly exciting as an exercise of putting them on the map.  There are important instances of assisting archeologists, ecologists, and farmers by aerial mapping can reveal local landscapes most sensitive to coastal flooding allows England’s Environment Agency to provide open data on sensitive issues that affect multiple communities–a prospect that seemed particularly suited to recognizing hidden paths through the woods.

CJ4A282WcAEeXxRDetail of LiDAR map issued by Environment Agency (UK) after 2014 Winter Flood

12.  The use of LiDAR to excavate a relation to space are not widespread in Vermont.  But the tools might help uncover many of the lost ancient roads that criss-cross the Vermont landscape, in concert with the consultation of a large body of paper and printed maps from the nineteenth century to search offer evidence of their past use, even as practical knowledge of these ancient roads has diminished across generations, and slowly atrophied as mapped pathways, to disappear from most all printed maps despite the long and respectable history of state-wide surveys and detailed topographical hiking maps–as well as trails maintained from the 1930s by the WPA. The memory of the landscape revealed in local deeds suggest strong local traditions of surveying that supplemented traditions of surveying the principle state-wide roads that run through the valleys, beside the state’s multiple rivers and railway lines.  But the lowly populated state included many of these “unmapped paths” and byways once important for regional commerce to mills, lumber depots, and tanneries.  Large-scale printed surveyed maps of the state from the early nineteenth century show a parallel growth in roads and rivers that embodied the state’s economy, offering something of a parallel resource to recover ancient roads.  For printed maps offer a template for coordinating such investigations in parallel with LiDAR surveys, to provide a picture of how the state was traversed before the introduction of the interstate I-89, and indeed, perhaps, before the train routes that so reshaped the perception of space across the state, but might be suggested before the roads and rivers by which the state was surveyed before the Civil War.

Addison 1859 rivers and rods Middlebury to GranvilleRivers and Roads in Map of Addison County, 1859

The attempt at an erasure of past town thoroughfares hopes to streamline the historical accumulations lest the state be compelled to acknowledge legal challenges to private property challenges.  But they ran into counter-claims of the prominent place such roads and byways enjoy in local history.  The existence of roads in the state were not noted in the early 1838 survey of the state, created by the authority of the US Congress, which was limited to the rivers that ran through all its counties, which is distinct for its absence of railroad routes–and indeed leaves local byways and roads off the map, as if they were more important for town-dwellers than for the map-reader:

Rivers in Vt 1838 The attempt to reconcile local and state land maps, in ways that suggest not only greater centralization of mapping byways and highways across the state, but a potential wiping away of a well-archived local historical memory.  The memories do not survive in the many maps of the state that were surveyed and printed though the nineteenth century, a particularly fine collection of which do survive–and exist online, but which are dedicated to major thoroughfares and routes, but seem more attentive and exact when it comes to rivers’ paths from the great Payne map of 1799 to maps of the Beers atlases–as rivers were the main sources of power, commerce, spatial connectedness, and settlement that unified largely agricultural areas of settlement, and no roads seem to be noted, as if most travel remained local. Payne 1799Payne Map (1799) Beers 1834 Beers Atlas, 1843 Vt 1877 beers Beers, 1877 vt 1878 beers Beers, 1879 Many of the county maps note local roads and rivers, but they are, as in this map of Addison County of 1858, loosely sketched below, but however only skim the surface of the collective lattice one might come across today, and suggest as many questions as they resolve as to their founding, construction, or use, but suggest the deeply fragmented nature of travel in state counties and the relatively small scale nature of local itineraries and knowledge. roads and rivers The combination of efforts to recover such ancient roads indeed offers the possibility of mapping a far richer and hitherto unseen landscape of the local and the back roads never or very rarely noted in USGS topographical maps or earlier state atlases, like a Beers Atlas.

13.  The legal recognition traditionally accorded to any roads that were filed in Vermont towns developed in ways that offer a rich paper repository in local towns to act as a medium to uncover the landscape of what once was.  The particular state of affairs in Vermont, whose “forgotten roads,” “ancient roads,” or “sleeping roads” are just beginning to be recovered, may derive from the 1781 mandate that highways be surveyed “by the Compass” within two years or lose whatever status they locally enjoyed as legal roads, led to the proliferation of Road Survey Books in local municipalities, which have been continued to be laid by Selectmen, even after they have not been maintained or those very points, pastures and buildings that they connected have been lost to memory, until it was decreed in Act 178 of 2006 that the “ancient roads” should finally become “dead roads,” and “All class 1, 2, 3, and 4 town highways and trails shall appear on the town highway maps by July 1, 2015.”  A keen sense developed that the longstanding tradition of the public ownership of legal rights of way were being undercut by private property, and that the memories that log books, if not maps, preserved, were being all too suddenly erased and collectively junked–and the repository to knowledge about the lands potentially sacrificed.

But there are records of these roads, often described as “beginning . . . near a maple tree” or “beginning in the middle of the road from the Burnham farm to the river on the southerly bank of said river, thence north,” as Geoff Manaugh wrote in a recent article, written after witnessing wide popular local interest in recovering the state’s “lost roadways” back in 2008. Manaugh’s account captures the conflicted politics of remapping the region’s lost roads of which few traces or “use” remains.  While the state of Vermont is bisected by a “Y” of interstates, between the 89 that runs from St. Albans through Montpelier to White River Junction, where it joins I-91, running on the New Hampshire side of the state down from Canada to St. Johnsbury to Springfield, the road system of Interstates that avoids Mt. Mansfield was effectively created and laminated over a far more sensitive register of spatial knowledge–a range of pathways of movement and communication that are often forgotten for drivers, and unused save by intrepid snow-shoers, cross-country skiers and runners, removed from the spaces down which we drive, leaving streams of fuel emissions across the green state. Since such roadways are often absent from Bing or GoogleMaps, the search for lost roads has evoked a wealth of detail and local knowledge that would risk being lost, and unearthed roads rarely pictured on the blank green of highway maps, or on many USGS topographic maps of the state’s surveyed terrain.


Yet there is a move to make these maps far more legible. The deadline to grant legal recognition to earlier historical rights suggests something more than a concern of local historians, but a question of the survival of a time-honored tradition of how to inhabit the local landscape the the land.

14.  As much as a form of cartographical assertion of the value of local knowledge, the deadline has precipitated something of a struggle for public memory through the remapping of the otherwise unmarked network of the state’s lost highways, that, even if it is trying to be stewarded by the Vermont Agency of Transportation, has encouraged a resurgence of local public history, pouring through Town Record Books and going through over 200 years of property deeds to find roads pinned by surveyed coordinates of rights of way that would otherwise fade into the landscape and the roadless light green regions of the state highway map, which the state seem to have, after so long a time, decided to wipe clean of prior claims.   This led to some to propose the benefits of Foliage Penetrating Radar like LiDAR to detect these ghost roads, but the search for precedents of public mapping of roads, or the hope to find old-timers who might detect the lost ghost roads that run through the landscape, most always without names, that provide a palimpsest of how the land was inhabited. Uncovering the abandoned geometry of lost lot lines that once bound the now-forsaken orchard, the stone wall of the past property line, the lost farm, and the abandoned paths of logging.  These submissions provide a new set of tools to explore the back-country and woods, to be sure, like the self-published “History of Granville Roads” compiled with both considerable attention and loving dedication by Norman Arseneault, combining searches of property deeds in the town vault in Granville and Survey Books in conjunction with the surveying skills needed to explore forests he gained while working as a forester for the US Forest Service in Oregon:  Arseneault has lovingly tracked and retraced the courses of lost roads on the detailed printed topographic maps of the state where they are lacking, and will probably gain a larger audience for his findings not only because of his expertise, but because of curiosity into this landscape of the past, which suggests the matrix of roads of a vibrant local economy. Granville rivers and roads 1859 For the sense of remapping the ancient roads of the state is a way of discovering new landscapes in maps, as much as preventing old roads from reverting to landscapes:  the discovery of these new landscapes in old maps is indeed more than half the fun, together with navigating the unused roads themselves to puzzle over what sorts of landscapes they fed.  The routes suggested will also ostensibly result in the attempt to weigh and combine the results of regional and local searches that have been submitted within a new version of the state’s official highway map, which sets the bar from now on on what is a recognized road and what is not.  But the conversion of these ghost roads or forgotten thoroughfares by including them on a printed map is an odd form of remember of a medium that is not usually kind to including new information, or uncovering lost landscapes. But there is long precedent, of course, to having landscapes discovered in old maps.

15.  The introduction of sites from which one might engage the toponymy or routes of a map is in a sense the oldest basis for fiction, but the indication of new landscapes have a neat parallel in the “trap streets” that some cartographers have placed in their printed maps as a form of claiming priority on their designs.  So notorious are some of these “traps” as forms of cartographical signatures that OpenStreetMaps hence warns contributors not only to rely on past printed maps, but use live satellite views to limit the number of errors that might otherwise compromise their maps.  An inversion of restoring past routes and memories exists with the significance that the addition of invented copyright traps in printed maps of fake (or paper) towns. The excavation of Vermont’s “ancient roads” suggest a replacement or renegotiation of sites on the map in ways that echo the meaning that was read into the placement of one invited city–Agloe–at the crossroads of two roads.  Aloe is one of the most famous of such copyright traps, for its insertion set in motion a cartographical fiction.  In the New York maps designed by the General Drafting Company, the town is “shown” as if it bordered the Catskill Forest, where two actual roads meet.  Its location has gained renown as it became the central mystery that the emblematizes the arrival of adolescent high school seniors to embark on a road trip in John Green’s Paper Towns, where the fiction innocently devised by Otto G. Lindberg (O, G, L) and Ernest Alpers (E, A)  provided a destination that stood as an analogy for growing up, or recognizing the realities behind the images that each of them constructs for themselves.  The imaginary town of Agloe was Lindberg and Alpers included by combining their initials in a concealed signature, but soon appeared as a place. The placement of the copyright trap in upstate New York had an afterlife Lindberg could have imagined since it offered a way to move through a new space:   after the map was distributed for free at a chain of Esso gas stations from 1925, described as a town was listed as having a population of 0 to 500, it led folks to travel to it to found a fishing lodge and a General Store to provide for the folks who supposedly lived there. twcikl9tqwg1wogxucgm At first, the trap soon seem to have done its work well for the General Drafting Company:  employees noted with surprise the name on a Rand McNally map of the region, and quickly threatened suit.  But the investigation that followed revealed the power of maps to embody place and bring them to being.  Although Lindberg believed he spotted fraud as the encoded signature cropped up in other maps, a visit to the intersection of rivers revealed the site of the Agloe General Store.  For his idiosyncratic map had provided a new way of reading the landscape, allowing discovery of a place hitherto unknown.  Esso not only distributed free copies of the General Drafting Company maps, but had decided to found a station at the “Agloe General Store” in the place it was located on the maps, and in doing so they had released the proprietary name into the common domain, about the same time that purchasers of a home at the intersection of Beaver Kill and Spring Brook proudly gave their new property the odd proper name of “Agloe Lodge.” 29AGLOE2-articleLarge The discovery of Agloe in the actual landscape of upstate New York had migrated to Google Maps through March 2014, when if supposedly deleted–as an “unofficial town”–it also persists, amalgamated with the nearby town of Colchester, as if to satisfy those who want to visit the area which readers of John Green’s young adult will remember he located the final scene and culmination of Paper Towns, the destination of the collective road-trip that makes the end of high school, and offers a particularly enchanting metaphor for the defamiliarization of place, and reconstitution of an already tight coterie of friends. FictionalAgloeNewYork A C The enchantment of Aglow grows out of the map, on which Quentin traces, in Green’s novel, the elusive and perhaps endangered disappeared Margo, and it provides the surface for reconstructing her itinerary by a set of pushpins on a map. For Lindberg’s map created the place as it spoke truth to its readers so persuasively to realize what was only a conceit.  The purely propositional place helped create a settlement where Otto Lindberg had placed a signature to catch lazy cartographers became a place that other map-makers mapped, and opened up the landscape in new ways.  As Rand McNally successfully claimed in court that their “Agloe” did not derive from Lindberg’s map, the mapmakers’ invention persisted in road maps distributed by Esso (and later Exxon), and from the 1930s, a fishing lodge was founded in Agloe, and  a 1957 travelogue about rambles in the Catskills described scenic drives through Agloe, as the cartographical creation became a reality.  John Green smartly observed that “the idea that a fiction created on paper could become real was really encouraging to me as a writer”–and Lindberg and Alpers have created a place for self-discovery as much as a cartographical conceit, as their fiction provided a nice way for Green to construct his compelling book.  One might even wonder if the popularity of this book–and the upcoming movie version–lead this imaginary town to be reinserted in Google maps?  For the lost landscape that the map evoked lead its readers to find this interesting lived landscape this fork of two rivers. agloe-sign-4e00954ce4d97bd3612e5b62964bc06acb0182ba-s1600-c85 Perhaps the restoration of “forgotten byways” that have been excavated in Vermont’s landscape will effect a re-enchantment of the rural landscape.  For even before they are weeded for consideration on the Vermont Highway Map, the new repositories of local mapping, born out of consultation with paper records, will not only to serve hikers or cross-country skiers, but nurture a new understanding of the land and reach a new audience of map readership.  Perhaps the uncovering of sleeping roads will counter-intuitively lead people to drive off of the interstates, raising the prospect of listing new numbered roads where none were until quite recently even thought to exist–and even if the roads are not included in the future highway map.  But their accumulation and deciphering from the landscape has prompted a curiosity for codifying such unidentified corridors and lost highways, and exploring the sorts of landscapes that they will find. Maps are repositories of meanings, if they are interfaces that are always being contested as well.

Whether that means opening them up to to individual and commercial exploration is unclear, but by making long lost navigational tools available to the public, one effect of Act 178 will be to help us experience the historical landscape as it was once lived, and distance the starker highway map’s uniform green colors.  They might provide a new way to inhabit the land Google maps will most likely never allow.  The rehabilitation of such nameless roads may lead developers to places they might not otherwise travel–but loss of the roads may suggest more devastating development, deeply divorced from the past.

Leave a comment

Filed under GIS, Google Maps, Vermont

Mapping Our Shrinking Shores

Coasts have provided the primary cartographical invention to understand the risks that erosion pose to property:  the coast-line is the boundary of the known land, and determines the outer bound of the real estate.  But the coastal fixation of the landlubber privileges the illusion of the fixity of the shore.  More than ever, assumptions about the fixity of shorelines must fall away.  Perhaps the most haunting take away from the Surging Seas web-based map of global shorelines forces us to take into account the inevitable mutability that must be accepted with the rising of ocean-level associated with climate change.

The web-map presents itself as a set of tools of analysis, as much as cartographical techniques, by which the rise of sea-level that has already risen globally some eight inches since 1880 stands to accelerate–emphasizing the alternate scenarios that the acceleration of sea-level rise stands to bring over the next hundred years, introducing a new concept of risk due to coastal flooding.  The availability of accurate GPS images of the elevations of homes have provided the possibility of sketching scenarios of sea-level rise to create readily zoomable maps of elevated ocean levels that confront us with at least the image of the options which we still theoretically have.  The contrasting futures created in this cartographical comparison shocks viewers with a salutary sort of operational paranoia only increased as one fiddles with a slider bar to grant greater specificity to the disastrous local consequences of rising sea-levels world-wide.


In ways quite unlike the wonderfully detailed old NOAA Topographic Surveys which map shorelines at regular transects, or T-Sheets, recording the high waterline of tides across 95,000 coastal miles and 3.4 million square miles of open sea, the coastline is less the subject of these web maps than levels of potential inundation.  In a negative-mapping of possibilities of human habitation, blue hues invade the landscape in a monitory metric emphasizing the regions at risk of being underwater in a century.  Whereas scanned T-Sheets can now be viewed by a historical time-bar slider, the fixity of space or time are less relevant to the web maps than the gradients of possible sea-level rise caused by carbon emissions might force us to confront.

Surging Seas forces us to confront the possibilities of the future underwater world.  The infiltration of a deep shade of blue commands the eye by its intensity, deeper shades signifying greater depth, in ways that eerily underscore the deep connection that all land has to the sea that we are apt to turn our backs upon in most land maps, showing the extent to which a changing world will have to familiarize itself to water-level rise in the not-distant future.  It’s almost paradoxical that the national frontiers we have inscribed on maps has until recently effectually made impossible such a global view, but the attraction of imagining the somewhat apocalyptic possibility of sea-level rise seems almost to map a forbidden future we are not usually allowed to see, and has a weirdly pleasurable (if also terrifying) aspect of viewing the extensive consequences of what might be with a stunning level of specific and zoomable local detail we would not otherwise be able to imagine, in what almost seems a fantasia of the possibilities of mapping an otherwise unforeseen loss, not to speak of the apparent lack of coherence of a post-modern world.

For the variety of potential consequences of disastrous scenarios of sea-level rise posed can be readily compared with surprisingly effective and accurate degrees of precision, in maps that illustrate the depths at which specific regions stand to be submerged underwater should sea-level rise continue or accelerate:  zooming into neighborhoods one knows, or cities with which one is familiar, the rapid alteration of two to seven feet in sea-level can be imagined–as can the fates of the some 5 million people worldwide who live less than four feet above sea-level.  For if the shores have long been among the most crowded and popular sites of human habitation–from New York to London to Hong Kong to Mumbai to Jakarta to Venice–the increasing rapidity of polar melting due to climate change stands to produce up to a seven feet rise in sea-level if current rates of carbon emissions, and a mere four degree centigrade rise in global temperature stands to put the homes of over 450 million underwater, which even the most aggressive cutting in carbon emissions might lower to only 130 million, if rates of warming are limited to but 2°C.   (If things continues as they stand, the homes of some 145 million who currently dwell on land in China alone are threatened with inundation.)

The recent review of the disastrous consequences of a rise of two degrees Centigrade on the land-sea boundary of the United States led Climate Central to plot the effects of a-level rise of at least 20 feet on the country–and foreground those regions that were most at risk.   The webmap serves as something like a window into the possible futures of climate change, whose slider allows us to create elevations in sea-level that the ongoing melting of the polar ice-cap seems poised to create.  As much as offer compare and contrast catastrophes, the immediacy of recognizing the degree to which places of particular familiarity may soon stand to lie underwater performs a neat trick: for whereas a map might be said to bring closer the regions from which one is spatially removed or stands apart, making present the far-off by allowing one to navigate its spatial disposition in systematic fashion, the opacity of those light blue layers of rising seas obscures and subtracts potentially once-familiar site of settlement, effectively removing land from one’s ken as it is subtracted from the content of the map, and charting land losses as much as allowing its observation.

The result is dependably eery.  The encroachment of the oceans consequent to rising sea-level propose a future worthy of disaster films.  But the risks can be viewed in a more measured ways in the maps of sea-level on the shores of the United States calculated and mapped by Stamen design in the Surging Seas project that allows us to imagine different scenarios of sea-level rise on actual neighborhoods–the set of interactive maps, now aptly retitled Mapping Choices, will not only cause us to rethink different scenarios of shifting shorelines by revisiting our favorite low-lying regions, or allow us to create our own videos of Google Earth Flyovers of different areas of the world.  Mapping Choices provides a way to view the risks and vulnerabilities to climate change made particularly graphic in centers of population particularly low-lying, where they testify to the clarity with which web maps can create a vision of imagined experience as we imagine the actual losses that global warming is poised to create.  And although the recent expansion of the map to a global research report, allowing us to examine possible global futures that are otherwise difficult to comprehend or process the potential risks posed by the inundation of low-lying inhabited regions for a stretch of thirty meters, the potential risk of inundation is perhaps most metaphorically powerful for that region that one best knows, where the efficacy of a simple side-by-side juxtaposition of alternate potential realities has the unexpected effect of hitting one in one’s gut:  for debates about the possibilities of climate change suddenly gain a specificity that command a level of attention one can only wonder why one never before confronted as an actual reality.

Alternate Scenarios

Maps are rarely seen as surrogates for observation, and web maps often offer something like a set of directions, or way finding tools.  But the predicted scenarios of sea-levle rise allows one to grasp the local levels of inundation with a specificity that allow risk to be seen in terms of actual buildings–block by block–and wrestle with the risks that climate change portends.  The lack of defenses of populations in many regions are definitely also at great risk, but to envision the loss of property and known space seems oddly more affecting in such an iconic map of Manhattan–and somewhat more poetic as an illustration of the fungibility of its hypertrophied real estate and property values.

Of course, the data of Climate Change allows a terrifying view of the future of four degrees centigrade warming on low-lying Boston and the shores of the Charles, as the city is reduced to a rump of an archipelago–


or the disastrous scenarios for the populations in the lower lying areas of Jakarta–


or, indeed, in Mumbai–


Viewers are encouraged to imagine the risks of the possible alternate futures of just two degrees with an immediacy that worms into one’s mind.  The possibilities that GPS offers of instantaneous calculations of shoreline position and elevations allow one to view a potential reality where one can focus on individual streets with inspirational urgency.

But such scenarios seem somehow particularly graphic illustrations of risk for those regions where there has been a huge investment of human capital, as New York City, where it might seem credible enough to be mapped that they are poised to melt not into air but vanish beneath ocean waves.  For if Marx predicted with spirited apocalypticism at the very start of the Communist Manifesto that capitalism would destroy value to money as it expanded into future markets, as market forces abstracted all things into money–and “all that is solid melts into air”–the twentieth-century expansion of possibilities of environmental and human destruction have lent unprecedented urgency.  While for Marx the metaphor of melting of inherent value was the product of the capitalist system, the capitalist system bodes a strikingly similar image of sinking into the seas.  For huge expanses of the old industrial city–the piers and the old manufacturing zones, most all of the Jersey shore and area around Newark, Long Island City and the Gowanus canal seem sink apart from the shoreline in the future New York that Surging Seas creates, in ways that seem the consequence of industrial production and carbon surging far beyond 400 parts per million (ppm), with the addition of some 2 ppm per year, in ways that make it a challenge to return to the levels deemed healthy–let alone the levels of 275 ppm which the planet long held through the mid-eighteenth century.

That drought, hurricanes, disappearance of arctic ice (up to 80% in summertime) and rising sea levels are tied to the growth of greenhouse gasses hint how global capital might be closely linked to the sinking into the seas, and suggest the surpassing of a tipping point of climate change that is the counterpart to melting into air might be viewed, in New York City’s economic geography, as if to offer a poetic reflection of the migration of capital into the financial centers of the city downtown from its piers or areas of industry–


–although half-hearted joking references to Marxist maxims (or geographers) is hardly the topic of this post, and the island of high finance that would be created in downtown Manhattan would hardly have ever been planned as an island.

Lower Manhattan Island?

What one might someday see as the lopping off of much of lower Manhattan might be far better tied to the runaway markets of a free-trade economy, rather than rational planning, and has no clear correspondence to property values.

lopped off lower Manhattan

Indeed, the mapping of the prospective loss of those residential parts of the city “where poor people dwell” (as do minorities) is undeniable, if one looks at the 2010 American Community Survey, regarding either in the city’s distribution of ethnic groups or households earning below $30,000, who remain the most vulnerable to the danger of rising ocean levels.

ACS 2005?

Income under 30,000American Community Survey (2010)/New York Times

But the disappearance of the Eastern Parkway and the Jersey shore are a blunt reminder of the extreme vulnerability of the built environment that lies close to sea-level–

Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue above the seas

–and an actually not-too-apocalyptic reminder, but the mapping of consequences of man-made change that goes under the rubric of anthropocene, and is most apparent in the increasing quotient of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the warming that this may bring.  For if it has been approximated that there has already been a rise of sea-levels by some eight inches since 1880, the unprecedented acceleration of that rate, which will increase the dangers of floods from storms and place many of the some three thousand coastal towns at risk, are likely to increase as the sea level may rise from two to over seven feet during the new century.


The distribution is by no means uniform, and more industrialized countries, like the United States, are producing far more particulate matter, although they have been recently overtaken by China from 2007, and have atmospheres above 380 ppm in the Spring, making them more responsible for rendering higher temperatures–although the lower-lying lands below the equator may be most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.20.11 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.21.44 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.22.35 PMVox– A visual tour of the world’s CO2 emissions

The increasing levels of particulate matter are attempted to be more locally mapped in Surging Seas.

The changes extend, in a nice dramatic detail, into the Central Park Meer rejoining the East River with the predicted inundation of much of the posh residential area of Manhattan’s East Side, all the way to Fifth Avenue.

Truncated NJ and absent upper East side

It is difficult not to compare the scenarios sketched in Surging Seas maps to some of the maps of those future islands of New York that Map Box and others allowed Sarah Levine to create maps of the heights of buildings from open data after the pioneering maps of Bill Rankin’s 2006 “Building Heights.”   When Rankin remapped Manhattan by taking building height as an indirect index of land value, he saw the island as clustered in distinct islands of elevation above 600 feet:


Radical Cartography (2006)

Levine used similar data to chart the fruits of Mammon in buildings above sixty stories.  Maps of skyscrapers beside the gloom of Surging Seas suggest those towers able to withstand the rising seas brought by global temperatures jumping by just two degrees Centigrade.  If one moves from the map of the bulk of lowest sections of lower Manhattan–

Two Inches in Lower Manhattan

with reference to Levine’s brilliantly colored carmine mapping of the highest buildings in the Big Apple, above forty-seven or fifty-nine stories, which one imagines might provide the best vantage points that rise above the rising waves, especially when located on the island’s shores.

Mapping NYC by Sarah

Sarah Levine Maps Manhattan

There’s a mashup begging to be made, in which the tallest buildings of over fifty stories at the tip of the island peak up above the cresting waves, and the rump of buildings in lower Manhattan offer contrasting vistas of the city’s contracting shores.  The buildings that create the canyons of urban life, the buildings of elevation surpassing sixty stories might suggest the true islands of Manhattan’s future, as much as the points that punctuate its skyline.

Sarah's Lower Manhattan

The realization of this possible apocalypse of property made present in these maps offer the ability to visit impending disasters that await our shorelines and coasts, and imagine the consuming of property long considered the most valuable on the shore–as rising seas threaten to render a whispy shoreline of the past, lying under some six meters of rising seas.  The prospect of this curtailing of the ecumene, if it would bring an expansion of our nation’s estuaries, presents an image of the shrinking of the shores that suggests, with the authority of a map, just how far underwater we soon stand to be.

Eastern USASurging Seas: sea level rise after 2 degrees centigrade warming

All actual maps, including Levine’s, provide authoritative reporting of accurate measures with a promise of minimal distortions.  But visualizations such Surging Seas offer frightening windows into a future not yet arrived, using spatial modeling to predict the effects of a rise in sea-level of just five feet, and the potentially disastrous scale such a limited sea-level change would bring:  the coasts are accurate, but their inundation is a conservative guess, on the lower spectrum of possibilities.  For in a country in which 2.6 million homes are less than four feet above current sea-levels, the spectral outlines of chilly blue former coastlines peak at a future world are still terrifying and seem all too possible, as much as potential cautionary tale.  The concretization of likely scenarios of climate change remind us that however much we really don’t want to get there, how potentially destructive the possibility of a several degree rise in ocean temperatures would be.

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate Change, coastal flooding, data visualization, Global Warming

Around the World in Submarine Internet Cable

The spans of privately-funded fiber optic underseas cables that have been lain across oceans floors, some stretching over 28,000 kilometers, provide an image of global circumnavigation as well as offering the most massive engineering feat on earth that is hidden to human sight.  And the rapidity with which further cable is being lain to link the world’s data flows along faster and more secure lines of communication provides a telling model of interconnectedness, suggesting new senses of connectivity and warping past concepts of proximity–and unifying the differently owned cables as if they constituted a coherent and open information highway.  The adoption of the antiquated format of a nautical chart serves both to suggest the increasing interconnectivity of the Information Age, but also to reveal the ways that TeleGeography, a global telecom, has helped channel information across seas by familiarizing viewers with a distinctly concept of space less by foregrounding its peculiarities than to naturalize an image of high-speed connections.  Rehabilitating a somewhat romanticized earlier mapping of oceanic expanse orients viewers to the new mental space that such mapping creates–and domesticizes the transcendence of distance through the increasing interconnectedness of information flows.

The appealing charting of the hidden network of submarine cables designed by TeleGeography didn’t only borrow the antiquated iconography of marine charts from an Age of Discovery in order to promote the expanding spread of submarine fiberoptic cables in amusing ways.  For the image served to suggest the shifts in spatial connectedness that such increasingly rapid data flows have allowed, and to suggest a map that, in focussing on the seas–and the overlooked areas of marine space–returned to an interesting if somewhat overlooked spatial metaphor to consider and visualize the extent to which global financial networks and information systems move in particularly flexible ways across the permeable boundaries of nations, if not the degree to which national units have ceased to be the confines that matter, as cross-border flows are increasingly the primary sorts of traffic that matter.

Phone Calls in 2012

A more familiar global remapping of phone calls,constructed on a study by students of business, Pankaj Ghemawat and Steven A. Altman, partly funded by the logistics firm DHL, an approximate quantification of globalization was made by the metrics of cross-border telephone calls in 2012 worldwide, in which the thickness corresponds to the minutes spent on the phone–and presumably the closeness of connections, if filtered through the relative costs of calls and the ability topay of them.  In a sense, the chart featured by TeleGeography openly incorporates less data, while noting the varied speeds of connections, in an image of interconnectedness, and positions itself less as a cutting edge snapshot of globalization or globalized than at the dawn of the possibilities of future interconnectedness that the laying of fiber-optic cables of greater speed can promote.  If the map of telephone calls raises questions of information flows, some 41 percent originating in what the authors identified as “advanced economies” to “emerging economies,” and only a small fraction (9%) originating in an “emerging economy,” the technology may also illustrate the precise demographic that continue to adopt telephony:  the authors observe that the dominant “calling patterns” reflect “interactions due to immigrants,” with most international calls being placed from the United States to Mexico and India, countries of first-generation immigrants–rather than reflecting actual information flows.

TeleGeography seems decidedly optimistic about the possibilities for global circumnavigation fibre-optic cables can promote.

In place of offering a map of actual flows of data, or a revealing look at where cables lie, the adoption of an aestheticized image and iconography of the nautical chart to map the ever-expanding web of cables that connect the world advances an argument about the sorts of ties cables facilitate, in order to illustrate and promote the ever-increasing multiplicity of ways information can travel across the globe without regard for the bounds of the nation-state.  Even as we bemoan NAFTA, or raise concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the networks of cables that currently span the terrestrial sphere divide into 285 separate privately owned segments show a coherent network has rapidly grown–its extent more than doubling in length over the past three years–and seems poised to only grow in coming years, to render national protectionism a thing of the past:  the map leavs viewers only to imagine its benefits.  While not seeking to quantify actual data flows, the scope of the map seems to be to naturalize the broad range of traffic lying such cables allows.

The submarine network now totals upwards of 550,000 miles.  Although it is never seen above ground, and lies concealed beneath the seas, it now seems to animate most international commerce.  There is a pleasant irony in adopting the decorative aspects of marine charts to map a contemporary image of global circumnavigation, since they gesture to deep shifts in the seas of information, but also evoke the marvel of rendering visible what is all but unseen.  The exact locations of such cables are not displayed, of course, but the stylized presence suggests a decidedly early modern form of totalistic boasting to transcribe, “according to the best Authorities [and] with all the latest Discoveries to the PRESENT PERIOD,” the extent to which the infrastructure of the Information Age spans the seas.  What once was a site of marvels revealed by the officer turned conservationist Jacques Cousteau is a field for information carriers, even if monsters inhabit its depths.


The “New Map” updates the recent rapid exponential expansion of the network fiber optic cables in recent years as a sort of corporate promotion, rehabilitating the marine chart to naturalize the submarine network that now carries a large share of global financial and administrative information worldwide.  Retrospectively mapping the expansion of this exoskeleton of the anthropocene ignores the technologies on which such mapping suggest, recalling the abilities to technologically harness steam, wind, and power to recreate the romance and adventure of global circumnavigation in an updating of the 1873 romance and fast-paced adventure Jules Verne told of a race against the mechanized clock by a constellation of transit networks.


Verne en 80 Jours

For much as Verne offered a quickly-paced adventure mildly disguised celebration of technological unification of the globe, the retrograde if glorious map masking as an engraved superimposing high-fibre cables on image of the ocean as understood in days gone conceals the clear corporate interests or material technology that underpin the Information Age.

The map of the oceanic unknown celebrates the laying of a material web of the world wide web as if it were another oceanographic detail, but masks the unseen nature of the cables that were lain in hidden fashion underneath the seas:  indeed, rather than the slightly earlir Verne-ian classic of 1870 with which it is often paired, the map doesn’t heaven to futuristic science, but sublimates a similar story of submarine itineraries.  Indeed, the map offers a picturesque recuperation of an aesthetics of global unity that serves to reframe the newly prominent submarine network that ships recently strung across the ocean floor.  It conceals the labor and mechanical drudgery of doing so–both the engineering or the fragility of the fibre-optic network, and the material basis of an electromagnetic carrier lurking deep under the seas.  In the Cable Map Greg Mahlknecht coded, the spans of current cables already connect hubs of communication across oceans at varied but increasing speeds,

Greg's Active

but the planned additions to the network, in part enabled by warming waters, are poised to greatly expand:

Greg's Transatlantic

Greg’s Cable Map

The work that the map modeled after an engraving of global seas does is serious, for it integrates the growing network of fiber-optic cable at the ocean’s floor into the seascape that nautical charts showed as a light blue watery expanse.  For as the price for fiber-optic cables precipitously dropped since 2000, this material infrastructure of global financial markets has not only grown, but kept up with the rapid improvement in network communication along a growing network of 250,000 km of submarine cable most folks have limited knowledge, and whose public image is in need of PR.  The addition of such fairly florid decorative detail from nautical charts to invest the routes of hidden submarine cables’ with an aesthetic that both caused it to be named one of the best maps of 2015 and exemplifies how to lie with maps.



The 2015 map, published online, but emulating the paper map, seems to conceal the extent of work that went into not only laying the cable, but ensuring that it was not disrupted, but blended seamlessly into the surrounding oceanographic landscape.  FLAG–the Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe–after all offered a sort of modern updating of the boast of Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg.  For Fogg wagered £20,000 that the speed of the combination of trains and steamboats would allow him to travel around the globe so that he could return to the very same seat he occupied in the Reform Club in London in only eighty days–a boast based on his trust in the speed of modern conveyances of steam travel.  For Fogg’s image of interconnectedness was realized in the copper cables that conducted telegraphy traffic.  These telegraphy cables lain under the Atlantic by the 1880s by the Eastern Telegraph Company across the Atlantic and Pacific, which by 1901 linked England to North America, India and Malay in a network of communications that offers a vision of corporate interconnection spanning the expanse of the British Empire and providing it with an efficient communications system that was its administrative and commercial underpinning.


Eastern Telegraph Company (1901), planned cables shown by dotted lines–Wikimedia

But rather than perform the feat of circumnavigation, the matrix of underwater internet cables is based on the creation of a submarine matrix to carry any message anywhere all the time–when it can be linked to an on-land cable–save, that is, in Antarctica, where the frigid waters, for now, would freeze the cable and disable it.  Fogg staked his wager after noticing a map showing the construction of British rail exchanges that allowed long-distance transit across India, believing in his ability to achieve global circumnavigation on a network of carriers, based on his trust as a passenger and subject of the British Empire–and the infrastructure the enabled news, commerce, and administrative connections to travel with velocity, leading twenty-four of the thirty ships capable of laying cable-laying to be owned by British firms by 1896.  The framed cartouche in the upper right of the 2015 Submarine Cable Map echoes the triumphalism of the “present day” in boasting of the achievements by which, since “the first intercontinental telephony submarine cable system TAT-1 connected North America to Europe in 1958 with an initial capacity of 640 Kbps, . . . . transatlantic cable capacity has compounded 38% per year to 27 Tbps in 2013,” as US-Latin American capacity has nearly quadrupled.

The map, revealing the material network to what most of us perceive as coursing through the air, less effectively places the course of cables in evidence than depicts their now naturalized course.  The seascape of the Information Age seems, indeed, to demand the naturalizing of the courses of submarine cables, shown as so many shipping lines, running across the Atlantic and to the Caribbean, around the coast of Africa, from India to Singapore and to Hong Kong and Japan, before coursing across the Pacific.  Is its quaint cartogrpahical pastoralization of the courses of communication under the oceans, we see a reverse rendering of a materialized image of globalization, disguised by a faux nostalgia for the mapping of the as yet unknown world that will be revealed by the impending nature of an even greater increase of data flows.  Indeed, the breakneck speeds of data transport are noted prominently in some of the cartouches framed at the base of the map, which suggest the two-fold subject of the map itself:  both the routes of cables that were laid on the ocean floor, and the speed of data transport their different latency allowed.  The cartouche is a nice rendering of the corporate promise of delivering data that TeleGeography presumably makes to its customers, despite the different ownership of many of the stretches of cable that exist, and the lack of harmony, proportionality or geometric design in how the cables are in fact lain.

Latency of cables

That the network of submarine cable retains a curious focus on relays in England that is a telling relic of the nineteenth century.

The internet’s network still seems to start in England in Porthcurno, moving to Spain and through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean to Alexandria and then turn down the Gulf of Suez through the Red Sea, and around the Arabian Peninsula to Dubai, before moving across the Indian Ocean to Bombay and on to Malaysia and through the South China Sea to Hong Kong and up the coast of China, it creates an even more expansive set of exchanges and relays than Fogg faced.  For while Fogg was dependent on rail to traverse the United States as well as much of Europe, where he could pass through the Suez Canal to reach a steamer engine, and then cross India by train, before getting a ship at Calcutta to Hong Kong and Yokohama, the multiplicity of connections and switches that the submarine cables create disrupt any sense of linearity and carry information at unheard of speed–fiber-optic cables carry information at a velocity that satellite transmission cannot approach or rival.


Voyage of Phineas Fogg by rail, steamship, and boat–Wikimedia

The relays of paired cables now enable the instantaneous transmission of information between continents realize a nineteenth century fantasy of an interlinked world in ways that expanded beyond contemplation, the possibility of visiting the countries that FLAG traces are actually verges on impossibility–if only since the network offers multiple pathways of simultaneous transit.

The ambitions of those earlier Telegraph cables in connecting the world far transcends Fogg’s plan to create a path by which he could move between transit hubs.  His plans are dwarfed by the ambitions of modernity of the range of active and future underwater cable revealed in Greg’s Cable Map in ways that suggest the ambitions of creating an ever-more intensely interlinked world, where increasing number cables have been laid to fashion the actual physical infrastructure of the internet.

Greg's Cable Map

Greg’s Cable Map (click here for detail on each lines)

We often render the “hidden world” of privately owned transatlantic and other cables as a separate underseas world of cables lying on the seabed, able to be disrupted at its nodes, but removed from alike the shoreline and terrestrial world.

Underseas World

In strong distinction from such an image, the recuperation of something like nautical engraving by TeleGeography makes the clever point of naturalizing the greatest infrastructure of the Information Age–one that sometimes seems to have outweighed investment in the visible infrastructures of our cities and roads–within the currents of our seas, and as colored by the very hues by which the land is mapped as if to show the seamlessness of the communicative bridges that they create.

Given the extreme overload of data that these maps reveal–and the eeriness of a world created by the extent of cable laid–It’s in fact quite apt that the telecom firm TeleGeography showcased the interconnected nature of global communications this year by adopting the style of nineteenth-century cartographic tools.  It’s probably not at all a coincidence that in this age of big data, there’s a deep romance in the symbolic reclaiming of the crisply engraved lines of nineteenth-century cartography that folks like Nathan C. Yau of FlowingData pioneered in the online publication of a Statistical Atlas of the United Sates with New Data, refiguring information of the 2010 Census and 2013 American Community Survey.  Although designed in bits, the maps emulate the engraved delineations created for Francis Amasa Walker’s first Atlas:  Yau announced he had done out of some disgust that budget cuts prevented the Bureau of the Census from creating the atlas displaying its data in a Census Atlas–despite its success in accumulating so much data.

A quite clever graphic designer, Yau has posted sequences of  detailed non-dynamic maps that evoke the lithographic detail and crisp objectivity with which Walker created multiple legible embodiments as the Director of the US Census from 1870, when his interest in data processing led a set of new maps of the nation to be printed in Harpers Magazine, and the Census to grow to 22 volumes.  So well are we trained in grasping information via elegant visual forms that Yau bemoaned the absence of a similarly set of stately maps by evoking the project Walker envisioned as a form of mapping serving the public good:  and his online images embody data lying in the repository of Census data, from geological records to the distribution of human populations–and digest data to recognizable form, whose individual snapshots seem a nostalgic embodiment of data available from the American Community Survey.


FlowingData, “Map Showing the Area of Land Cover for Forests within the Territory of the Coterminous United States” (2015) from data compiled by American Community Survey (2013)


Flowing Data, “Map Showing Five Degrees of Density, the Distribution of Population” (2015) from American Community Survey (2013)

It is somewhat less expected that the format of an engraved or traditional map be showcased to reveal the system of submarine cables lying on the ocean’s floor:  few would consider the invisible network with nostalgia for the medium of the paper map.

To be sure, the very subject of internet cables are more appropriately rendered in an appropriately futuristic mode that habituates us to its ambitions by expanding the colors of a public transit map to reveal an image of an interlinked world–


The decision to “go retro” breaks conspicuously with such a choice for the futuristic design, and accommodates the multiplying extent of fiber optic cables that have been laid across the world’s waters so as to network the globe.  Only in 2014, TeleGeography issued a staggering map of the improvements in linkages of relays in submarine cable systems, suggesting the extent of the interlinked world to which we have become familiar not only thanks to Edward Snowden, but to our reliance on global data flows that increasingly enable financial markets worldwide, surpassing material constraints.

2014 Telegeography

TeleGeography (2014)

Such a map is overly schematic, indeed, since many of the cables’ paths are not openly disclosed.  From the land, we cannot see the landing sites where such fiber-optic cables go underwater, as Trevor Paglen has recently reminded us, in a series of diptychs that contrast the cables barely concealed in NOAA maps and the otherwise placid landscapes of the beaches beneath which they run; few realize the extent to which the information that travels on them is likely to be monitored as a form of mass surveillance, which we are far more likely to associate with satellites or surveillance.

But the complexity of the how information is carried along such cables is as boggling to the mind as the awesomeness of its ambitions.  Perhaps recognizing the sense of overwhelming its readers with data overloads in its maps, the 2015 map of submarine cables from Telegeography updated the format of an engraved map, and put in online in a fully zoomable form, to allow one to examine its lovingly rendered detail in a map that harkens back to charts of nautical discoveries but celebrates the rapidity of delivering information in an updated version of the corporate triumphalism of the Eastern Telegraph Company.  That map, which boasts in evocative language to be revised “according to the best Authorities with all the latest Discoveries,” foregrounds the multiple linkages of fiber optic cables that carry the vast majority of communications–of which “oversea” satellites link but a fraction–so efficiently they at first carried upwards of a thousandfold as much data compared to the older copper cables that lay below the sea recently–280 Mbps of data per pair–and moved 100 Gbps across the Atlantic by 2012–and the prediction 39 Tbsp is even feared to barely satisfy demand.  For transatlantic cable have come to carry some 95% of international voice and data traffic, and are viewed as a fundamental–if unseen–part of our global infrastructure, potentially vulnerable to disastrous interruption or disruption.

The familiarity of the “New Map of the Submarine Cables connecting the World” is not only charming; it is a somewhat subtle naturalization of the  new materiality of information flows so that they are regarded as a part of our new lived environment.  To be sure, the paths of cables are highly stylized, as if they fit within the oceans’ currents, although they sacrifice accuracy even though they suggest their private ownership and considerable density.


The open-ness of this mapping of submarine cables has been rare until recently–as recently as 2009, the location of the cable that arrives in the UK at Cornwall Beach was kept secret even on military maps, although commercial fishing trawlers and other boats are provided with access to them, somewhat paradoxically but unsurprisingly, lest they run across and damage the underseas cables that relay so many vital data flows across the globe under the seas, and whose severing could potentially come at a cost of as much as $1.5 million per hour.

America to three continents

The actual density of such cables laid at the bottom of the sea is not displayed on the above map, of course, which conceals their precise locations or the complexity of their routes, which are tantamount to secrets of state and off most maps.

interactive Map 2013-04-20_093527

The map designed by TeleGeography is indeed a romanticized vision of the pathways that information courses around the world, underseas, in an information age; the recuperation of the iconography more familiar from a printed map of the seas than the layers of a web map or data visualization naturalize the presence of such submarine cables in an odd exercise of familiarization.  We might be more suspect of the cartographic tricks of naturalization of the courses that submarine cables take when we examine the definitive maps of actual submarine cables or study the extent of such offshore cables in an interactive map and more carefully scrutinize their actual expanse.  (Such maps are not actual renderings of their situation on the seabed, if the starkness of the layers that chart these cables are decidedly less harmoniously balanced with the light shades of the mock-engraving, Submarine Cables Connecting the World.)

Decidedly fanciful if naturalistic sea monsters could denote the limits of the known world or the boundaries of secure navigation in many early modern charts, the inclusion of this most pictorial of cartographic iconographical traditions in early engraved maps are aptly appropriated to suggest the absence or gaps in the interlinked nature of space and of what passes as our sense of continuity in 2015–as well, on a not so subliminal level, to evoke the dangers of their disruption.


So naturalized is its cartographical iconography that the map suggests the new environment of internet cables in which we live.  This naturalization might be nowhere more evident than in the exotic appearances of marine creatures included in its seas.  A longstanding historical association exists between sea monsters with the North Sea, after monsters were first rendered as crowding its overflowing oceans in glorious detail by the bishop-geographer Olaus Magnus in his 1539 map of the land and waters around Scandinavia, who seems to have borrowed from bestiaries to illustrate the dangers that sailors would face in its waters, and to delight his readers and attest to the variety of the created world.


James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

A strikingly similar sort of horned seal and spouting fish quite appropriately make an appearance in the 2015 Submarine Cable Map of  TeleGeography within the North Sea and Arctic Ocean, as if to suggest the frigid waters that restrict the services such cables deliver–the spouting animals and seal lifted from Olaus Magnus’ Marine Chart frolic just beyond the regions that are currently covered by the cables’ crowded course.

Is this a hidden representation of what actual spatial limits constrain where countries are able to lie further submarine cable?

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualizations, internet service