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Toward speculative data: "geographic information" for situated knowledges, vibrant matter, and relational spaces.


This essay offers paths for scholars influenced by the critical social sciences and theoretical humanities to contribute to the construction of concepts and digital practices of "data" that will allow "data" to better align with their approaches to scholarly inquiry. In particular, it explores how "geographic information" might be refashioned, rereading it from simplified theoretical positions drawn from interpretative inquiry, process-relational thought, and new materialisms. Geographic information has largely called forth self-sufficient entities that have intensive properties, are indexed by location in an absolute space, and are known objectively through a geographic gaze. By contrast, this article suggests ways geographic information may be reimagined to constitute spaces as relational, matter as vibrant, and/or knowledge as situated. If all claims are seen as interpretative, the boundaries between what were previously considered the roles for reader, researcher, data structures, observer, and observed may also need to be reordered, with implications for the ways that we "interface" with data. Although such paths can be difficult to travel, they hold promise for extending the reach of interpretative and (non-positivist) empirical practice as well as favorably altering the terms on which interpretative scholars can participate in debates around, and practices of, "data" today.


Critical data studies, geographic information, new materialism, process-relational thought, relational geographies

To data

"Data", whether as concept or as concrete records, is far from banal, neutral, or ahistorical. Today, to many, "data" increasingly evokes senses of economic, ecological, social, and epistemological possibility (Anderson, 2008; Hey et al., 2009). In one computational imaginary called forth, near-infinite streams of data enable predictive modeling using machine learning whose relevancy and adequacy bypass the descent into the cacophony of theoretical inquiry altogether. Even the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities has funded several "Digging Into Data Challenges" (NEH, 2013). What is this "data" and why is it now so important?

In geography, the quantitative revolution, its critiques, and its data largely took shape in an era when digital computation was still expensive and comparatively narrow in its scope of usage within scholarly life. While computation had made many quantitative practices practical, its role in reshaping the fundamental terms of academic knowledge was still in its infancy. Debates around truth, reality, objectivity, quantification, and particular practices of inferential statistics are readily understood in the context of a conversation with mid-century science. "Data", as a category of intellectual concern, has often been largely defined through its associations with experiment, observation, and collection. Even science and technology studies, in its deconstructions of "data", has often focused on data within scientific practices (Latour, 1999).

Does recent intensification and extensification of computation in academic inquiry, in industry, and in social life generally make a difference to the way we understand "data" and its potentialities (Castelle, 2013)? I suggest here that it should, even if many of the practices that define "data" today were extant in earlier moments. Today, "data" is a concept whose transformation in relation to computation has been integral to its travels far beyond older connections to experimental science into new or altered relationships with capital, with the state, and with particular computational architectures, data structures and algorithms (Lyotard, 1984). Critiques of data, of its violences, silences, and overreachings, from past debates over quantification are still relevant (see, inter alia, Olsson, 1969, 1975), but the spread and intensification of computation even in the scholarly practices of social theorists and cultural critics increases the need--and perhaps the opportunity--for creative critical practice in response.

There are many interpretive scholars today whose research does use digital "data", yet does so on what one might term an "artisanal" basis--doing so in relatively small quantities and with deep attention to context. Thus, even if said scholars put such data into a spreadsheet, a simple relational database, or a qualitative data analysis program, the meanings of such data for the scholar are rarely "exhausted" by their digital representation. In a sense, the relevant processes of empirical research have been as much facilitated by computers as they have been transformed by them. The scholar maintains a dialogue with the data, contextualizes it, supplements it. Commentaries can still be written in the virtual margins, positionalities grasped, intertextuality given play. Thick description, even if left implicit in a file, is still readily at hand and in mind. Such artisanal digitally-enabled scholarship constitutes a "data" that supports the critical intellectual commitments of its scholars (Boyd and Crawford, 2012; Crampton et al., 2013). Much scholarship within a journal such as Society & Space is thus enabled by artisanal engagement with data and computation.

Yet there are tensions in interpretative scholarship's grapplings with the practices of computation and data hegemonic today. Data are often now empowered by being rendered able to be interrelated, circulated, accumulated, and calculated in new ways. We individuate data, we efface the roles of our own hands in data, and we abstract data, and only later do we interrelate, contextualize, and render data "semantic". In doing so, we draw upon the Modern intellectual legacies of "the fact" and its separations both of observer from observed and of description from analysis; upon a Cartesian dualism mirrored in the architectures of the computer that are used today; and upon an ontological tendency toward individuation found in the tabular logics that underlie much of our data [structures]. The way we construct "data" is interconnected with the way we construct boundaries defining observer, data, researcher, and reader.

Unfortunately, this division of conceptual labor that our present "data" helps us produce is not ideal for fostering approaches to inquiry that have been central over the past generation to the interpretative social sciences and the humanities in general, or to much of geography in particular. If the energetic epistemological and ontological debates and explorations of recent decades in our fields are not to be undermined by engaging with computation, but are to be facilitated by it, a transformative critique of "data" is needed. Here, I examine the computational construction of data in general, but I focus on "geographic information" in particular. Geographic information is intimately involved with contemporary Geographic Information Systems (GIS), but has intellectual implications far beyond, largely defining the terms on which computation and geography intersect in academic disciplines and outside the academy. Geographic information has largely been defined and implemented in a manner that constitutes independent entities with intensive properties, contextually indexed by location in an absolute space, and known objectively through a geographic gaze.

In response, I offer approaches to reconstructing geographic information in which spaces are relational, matter is vibrant, and/or knowledge is situated. To recognize matter as vibrant is allow it capacities, "not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own" (Bennett, 2010: vii). If claims are situated and interpretative acts; if spaces are produced as active moments within process and not merely absolute; if entities are likewise individuated in process and out of relation; then basic data structures, algorithms, interfaces, research subjectivities, and their boundaries need to be reformulated. In doing so, I argue both for the desirability and the plausibility of realizing a "speculative" data. The reference to the speculative is multiple: not only to the recent ontological and epistemological arguments of the speculative realists and empiricists (Bennett, 2010: vii), but also to calls by Johanna Drucker and other critics internal to the digital humanities for a "speculative computing" (Drucker, 2009). In speculative computing, we, "identify core theoretical issues in the humanities and develop digital platforms that arise from these principles" (Drucker, 2012). Let us listen and respond to these calls as we critically engage and reconstruct "data".

Of facts, code/data, modern computation, and the gaze from nowhere

The contemporary constitution of data owes much to the earlier rise of the Modern fact: the deracinated particular, observable by credible witnesses, yet partially both constitutive of (and constituted by) larger social relations (Latour, 1987; Poovey, 1998; Shapin and Schaffer, 1985). Although descriptive genres, such as inventories of resources by states, certainly predate modernity, a key Modern achievement has been the commonplace conceptual separation of worldly descriptions from theoretical analysis. In 19th-century social thought, a reciprocal relationship was established between emerging specializations of statisticians and political economists (Poovey, 1998). Neutral facts became abstracted from their situated knowers and appeared as if they might as well be seen by the "gaze from nowhere" (Haraway, 1988: 581). Although citation and reproducibility have remained important, facts have gained the ontological self-sufficiency to be recorded alone. Whereas textual inscriptions were once often understood to be meaningfully contextualized through having been signed by an individual, often an author having intent and having been influenced by a milieu (cf. Barthes, 1977), digital inscription has realized a certain semiotic economy and productive ambiguity through demanding a more thorough decontextualization of the texts (often numeric) it processes. Metadata, whose name is itself suggestive of a preexisting process of alienation, is too often an afterthought, and regardless, is not at the core of definitions for data structures or interwoven with the operations we execute on such data (though note the creative efforts of, among others, Schuurman and Leszczynski, 2006).

In a curious and selective echo of the modern conception of the western intellectual and his/her relationship to the world, the contemporary computer has generally been conceived as a machine with a central processing unit that draws upon and acts upon its own "memory" and with peripheral extensions it can use to physically interface with the machine's environment. In a theoretical sense, Turing's pioneering concept of the machine, for all its abstract mathematical formulism, explicitly compares a person computing with a machine that "sees" and writes on a tape (Turing, 1936: 231). From the beginning, this model of computing has reinscribed a variation on a Cartesian dualism (Descartes, 1988). We have that which reasons, and that which is manipulated and reasoned with. Data is the subordinate term in a binary, opposed variously to code and to the processing code directs.

Consideration of alternative computing paradigms does suggest how social-theoretic commitments may receive something less than full support from our current computing paradigm. Drawing on the concept of embodied cognition, scholars are exploring the possibility of realizing always-already physically embodied approaches to computation that will transcend the abstract Cartesian dichotomies of mind and data discussed above and suggested by the conventional understanding of Church-Turing computation (Maclennan, 2011). Indeed, the human mind itself may well exceed those models of computation (Kauffman, 2016). Researchers have inquired into ways in which various socionatural processes could be understood as implicitly carrying out information processing akin to computation (Feldman et al., 2008). When computation and data are no longer abstracted and separate but constituted as embodied, will we not be less likely to conceive of "data" using the "gaze from nowhere"?

Hegemonic computing architectures may support certain higher-order notions of data, but they are not determining them. Those concerned with reworking the intellectual commitments of "data" in the present may also intervene at the level of software, in how (boundaries between) data structures, interfaces, and users are constructed. To this, we now turn, with particular reference, but not exclusive relevance, to the construction of one type of data, "geographic information".

Of individuation, tables, and geographic information

Early articles on the role of computation in geography were clear about what would constitute data in geographic research. It was to be data that today one might term as that which may be "georeferenced": "Traditionally, geographers have relied upon field work to collect their data.... The data collected have been of two kinds, locational data and areal data. The former involve the characteristics found at some point, and the latter the characteristics in some region" (Berry et al., 1964: 39). Similarly, "it is probably trite to say that any geographic research must have to do with either locational or areal data of some sort" (Kao, 1963: 530). In the subsequent history of GIS, various concepts of fields, vectors, objects, events, networks, geo-atoms, geo-dipoles, have been advanced and instantiated in software to different degrees (Goodchild et al., 2007; O'Sullivan, 2005; Worboys, 2005). However, in the Varenius Project, a number of leading figures could still write that, "all [Geographic Information] can be reduced eventually to a simple statement that at some location there exists an instance of some more generally recognized thing, where thing might be a class, a feature, a concept, a measurement of some variable, an activity, an organism, or any of a myriad possibilities" (Goodchild et al., 1999). Geographic Information has been a particular representational project in which phenomena are objectively knowable; are discrete geometries with intensive properties; and, crucially, are referenceable (often by latitude and longitude coordinates) within an absolute Newtonian space. What logics underlie this constitution of geographical information, which is at the expense of realizing a geographic information more consonant with the ways many scholars who work with continental social theory might call upon evidence or make arguments?

Within the general tendencies of data and computation described above, tabular logics play a relevant role in the constitution of the present geographic information imaginary. Forms of table have played diverse roles in various contexts over history (Campbell-Kelly et al., 2003), but in the context of geographic data, they have helped in constituting, individuating, and organizing the interactions among phenomena, regulating the semiotic economy of data. Tables and spatialities have been co-constructing in multiple senses. Foucault, in The Birth of the Clinic (1973) and as read by geographers (e.g. Brown and Knopp, 2014; Philo, 2000), explored several "spatializations" integral to the birth of particular institutions, practices, discourses of modern medicine. These included tables of abstract classificatory nosologies that helped construct knowledge of diseases. In another sense, the work of the census helping constitute the population as a geographical object of knowledge long relied upon tables, but with the 1890 U.S. Census, also became intertwined with the development of computation through Hollerith's punched card machines, which led to the corporation later known as IBM (Heide, 2009).

But most directly illuminating for my concerns here is the example of Brian Berry's (1964) influential piece, "Approaches to regional analysis: a synthesis." This article gave clear voice to a tabular logic perennially associated with geographic information. The title suggested a possible synthesis between approaches to regional analysis in a moment when regional and systematic analytical approaches to geography appeared to be in conflict (Hartshorne, 1959; Schaefer, 1953). A systematic/regional synthesis was to be reached through the seemingly simple tabular technology of the "geographical matrix": a table whose columns were regions, whose rows were characteristics, and whose elements each recorded a "geographical fact", an observation of a given characteristic in a given region. (1) In their most basic forms, regional geography was to be the study of a column and systematic geography was to be the study of a row. More complex analyses could draw upon the analysis of multiple columns and/or rows. This constitution of geographic facts as intensive properties of particular regions that could be organized in a matrix or table (or a computational data structure such as a multi-dimensional array available in new high-level programming languages) was to become almost ubiquitous in later notions of Geographic Information that were [reproduced within GIS, even while the simplest tabular data structures have been supplanted by spatialized variants of the more sophisticated so-called "relational" databases (on which, more below).

Regional and systematic geography had been brought into simple geometric relation, but costs of constituting geographic data in this manner did not go unremarked upon, even by Berry himself. (2) Even his most complicated geographical matrix,

... shows the ways in which the system of interest to geography may be viewed at the first of these levels, that of static structure--of frameworks and patterns in space and time. It says nothing at all about the second level of interconnections across areas, connectivity of places, flows and interactions, let alone of the third, that of dynamic, interrelated processes. (Berry, 1964: 10)

Indeed, one cost of the synthesis was that process and relation, cherished by geographers as methodologically distanced by the rise of the quantitative methods as Hartshorne (1959) and Ullman (1980), were marginalized in encodable understandings of geographic data, rendered secondary and often unattainable, however desirable. This deployment of tabular technologies to constitute data has been influential to the geographical imagination. The table is a device for enabling certain relations and for restricting others. Berry understood and utilized this to make his argument for a synthesis. But I would also note that because entities and properties appear on orthogonal dimensions of the table, entities cannot have interrelations among them represented within the data model. Similarly, neither can properties. Tables here help individuate the world, providing representations compatible with a world of ontologically self-sufficient entities. (3)

Was it computationally necessary for the notion of geographic information to be constructed narrowly to focus on individuated objects indexed in absolute space to the exclusion of relational spaces emerging within and shaping socionatural process? How else might we constitute data--or even, how might we "data" differently?

Toward a geographic information for situated knowledges, vibrant matter, and relational spaces
   Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges
   (Haraway, 1988: 581) I am arguing for politics and epistemologies
   of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not
   universality is the condition of being heard to make rational
   knowledge claims.... I am arguing for the view from a body, always
   a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus
   the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. Only the god
   trick is forbidden. (589)

   Rational knowledge is a process of ongoing critical interpretation
   among 'fields' of interpreters and decoders. Rational knowledge is
   power-sensitive conversation (589-590)

How would geographic information change through dialogue with the commitments Haraway suggests here? Can geographic information be constituted not just as essentialized truth but as provisional, partial, and emergent within a dynamic web of interpretative practice? For scholars at the pioneering Speculative Computing Laboratory at the University of Virginia, who dared to believe we might reconstruct computing along humanistic lines instead of the reverse, "the single most important challenge we gave ourselves ... was to design representations that modeled subjectivity within knowledge production" (Drucker, 2009: xiv). (4) Can geographic information be transformed to take both the material and the cultural seriously?

Cultural inquiry and the geo-interpretation

To suggest how "data" may be reconstructed to better resonate with some of the diverse theoretical commitments of the interpretative social sciences and humanities, let us first return to one of the clearest and most comprehensive discussions of what "geographic representation" could be understood to consist, Goodchild et al.'s (2007) "Towards a general theory of geographic representation in GIS." In an elegant and nuanced argument, Goodchild et al.:

... first reduce all geographic information to a very primitive form, which we term the geoatom.... A geo-atom is defined as an association between a point location in space-time and a property. We write a geo-atom as a tuple <x, Z, z(x)> where x defines a point in space-time, Z identifies a property, and z(x) defines the particular value of the property at that point. For example, a geo-atom might indicate that at 120[degrees]W, 34[degrees]N, at Om above mean sea level, and at local noon on 11 July 2005 (a four-dimensional definition of x), the Celsius temperature (the property Z) was 20 (the value z(x)). (Goodchild et al., 2007: 243)

This is not to say that all computationally-inclined geographers or GIS software directly operate in terms of geo-atoms, but that Goodchild et al. argue the geo-atom is a meaningful abstraction, valuable because it can be aggregated and combined in various ways to derive other forms of geographic information. Here, we see an individuated, objectively knowable, object of knowledge that is primarily referenceable and contextualizable through its location in an absolute Newtonian space. Epistemologically, the geo-atom relies upon what Olsson might describe as the mimetic logic of the equals sign, that a description can be brought into equivalence with something else, that A=B. In such a geo-atom, is there room for the author, the observer or the situatedness of claims? (5) Can the reader and the interpretative act be seen?

What if we were to supplement the geo-atom by incorporating observers, authors, and readers into its expression? What if geographic information, at its most fundamental, were representable in a form closer to the tuple <x, Z, z(x,r), r>, where r situates the data in terms of authors, claimants, observers, subjects, or readers and acknowledges the interpretative nature of the information according to the context of its reception? If so, we have begun to reconstruct the geo-atom into what I term the geo-interpretation.

What might be the formal meaning of such an addition, r? The bolding of r is suggestive of a vector representation. Were this vector to be null in such a geo-interpretation, the invitation to encode context will have been declined. The geographical information would be equivalent to the previous concept of the geo-atom and would invoke the objective gaze from nowhere. The geo-interpretation would remain atomic and present, being the expression of an always-already individuated ontology. Much existing geographic information having been produced by modern organizations, having been constructed through the gaze (Pickles, 2004), would initially take this form, if later to be swept up into interpreted conversations of the sort advocated below.

Yet suppose that the vector, r, has at least one element. The first element, [r.sub.0], is to be a signifier for an observer, whether a scientist or someone rarely credited as an authority. Situating knowledge through the addition of an observer to the geo-atom lets the geo-interpretation acknowledge the specificity of claims. This is not to say that different observers would necessarily regard "the same" property differently (i.e. that z(x,r) would indeed vary as a function of r) but merely acknowledges that they may and that this difference should be fundamental to geographic information. Such differences among geo-interpretations should not be understood as mere "uncertainty" around a measurement of a single objective property but potentially as indicative of deeper ambiguity or polysemy.

Observers are not infinitesimal points acting alone from a tabula rasa. They may be understood as caught up in complex fields of discourse, or as engaged in rich processual worlds, at the moment of the geo-interpretation. Description, in interpretative research, is thick (Geertz, 1973). Ethnographic approaches, cultural studies, and literary criticism do, in often differing ways, explore how particular discursive, cultural, and intertextual contexts inform particular utterances, inscriptions, and meaning-making practices. (6) Understanding the outcomes, Z and z(x,r), will likely require greater insight into the [more-than-] discursive fields through which z(x,r) becomes meaningful for [r.sub.0] than can be expressed

by spatiotemporal coordinates given in an absolute Newtonian space, x. Indeed, in the geointerpretation, x is optional, only being non-null as relevant: why should all geographic information be "georeferenceable" in a simple coordinate space? The additional elements in r after the observer, [r.sub.0], are those contextual elements important to that observer's understanding of the interpretative event. In the most self-consistent approach, these elements are themselves all references to other geo-interpretations--a recursive, even fractal, gesture toward a deferral of meaning, reflecting a "process of ongoing critical interpretation among 'fields' of interpreters and decoders," as Haraway wrote. We thus move beyond the geo-atom (itself a move with implications for the spatiality of geographic information that we explore below).

Finally, z(x,r) records a description of the interpretation itself, with the parameters of x and r reminding us that the interpretation depends on sociospatial context. Whereas much Geographic Information today would have the observations, z(x), in geo-atoms take the form of numbers, geo-interpretations are at least as likely to have z(x,r) be text, images, or anything capable of being digitally encoded. Yet much remains ineffable; there forever remains a gap between experience and its description, no matter how expansively multisensoral the latter become.

Can a geo-interpretation recognize that some individuals are usually in the position to speak for many others (even though we do have projects whose sociology of knowledge differ somewhat, such as OpenStreetMap; see Sui et al., 2013)? The observer, [r.sub.0], will often not be the same as the person (or code) who specifies the context and encodes the geo-interpretation itself. But even if they were to be, it is appropriate to add another vector, s, to the geointerpretation to denote the scholar, researcher, or other contributor of the geointerpretative tuple. This vector, s, would be similar in spirit to r, but would allow a place for reflexivity on the part of the creator of the datum. Given this final element, we now state the geo-interpretation as <x, Z, z(x,r), r, s>.

Consider the implications of the geo-interpretation for what has been a dichotomy between data "producers" and "consumers". While most "readings" occur long after the measurements that contribute to the formulation of traditional geographic information, "readers" are necessarily engaged in interpretation. If readings are themselves understood as elements of geographical information, instead of a carefully constructed semiotic hierarchy, where meaning is linearly conveyed from observer to analyst to reader, we would allow for a web of iterative interpretation, leaving traces within the unfolding geographic information itself. Mappings, calculations, or other readings might likewise be altered. In the digital humanities, an experiment in speculative computing, the Ivanhoe Game, enabled groups of reflexive readers to take up subject positions to iteratively and interpretatively intervene in a textual field (Drucker, 2009; McGann, 2003). The geointerpretation likewise reworks how we engage "data" and how data participates in the construction of received conceptual boundaries between observer, data, researcher, and reader.

A few words of context and caution are appropriate at this point. Although it is conceivable that geo-interpretations could be enrolled in a modernist project seeking complete and certain empirical description of the world, the geo-interpretation would be much less useful than the geo-atom for such pursuits. A single geo-atom indicates objective knowledge of a single phenomenon. Epistemic progress is additive through the collection of geo-atoms. The geo-interpretation, by contrast, never has the final word on a phenomenon, nor are its phenomena likely to be individuable--not only is the passage of time likely to multiply perspectives instead of lead to convergence, not only does the reading of a geointerpretation suggest the traversal back through linked webs of geo-interpretations, but reading of a geo-interpretation itself suggests bringing a new, related geo-interpretation into being. The geo-interpretation smashes the geo-atom's mirror of nature (Rorty, 1979), with the resulting shards offering multiple, partial, shimmering views. If the geo-atom relies on the equals sign as its "symbol of mimetic desire", the geo-interpretation moves beyond to support inquiry whose mimetic desires find expression through the Hegelian slash and the semiotic bar as well (Olsson, 1991). It does not offer a way out of the modernist crisis of the sign that afflicts, however differently, positivist and critical interpretative approaches (see Olsson, 1991: 151-161). The geo-interpretation neither interprets itself nor others; it does not explain anything by itself.

The geo-interpretation here does, however, raise the question of what would be an appropriate digital interlocutor to the interpretative scholar for the present era of proliferating computation. Many different possibilities should be explored. For example, specifying the precise nature of the subject, [r.sub.0], as well as the contexts (in the rest of r) relevant to a subject's interpretative act, requires a commitment to specific theories of the subject and of discourse--and these are hardly settled across the interpretative social sciences and humanities. Could or should an approach to geographical information include a specific data representation for individual subjects independent of their implicit invocations in particular geo-interpretations? If subjects are to be explicitly represented, where is the boundary between what is accounted as being internally constitutive versus as being context? The argument I wish to make in this article is one that remains meaningfully agnostic theoretically and therefore welcoming to many such possibilities under discussion in the theoretical humanities and the interpretative social sciences. However, in that spirit of discussion, I would like to also consider here particular [more-than-human] generalizations to the geo-interpretation.

[More-than-] human geographies and the geo-encounter

... the baroque sensibility to complexity is that it is endless and that most of it cannot be known in as many words.... To know something, indeed to know it well, is not necessarily to make it explicit. It may be enough to reflect or refract or enact or embody it.... [Everything will ... be reflected or enacted or refracted or embodied in whatever is present. (Law, 2004: 23)

Geo-interpretations represent the context of the observer and of the phenomenon observed differently. The geo-interpretation provides richly for the representation of the contexts that lead to the observer or the reader constructing a particular outcome z(x,r). By contrast, the phenomenon being interpreted in the geo-interpretation is descriptively thin.

But what if the contexts most relevant to the constitution of the phenomenon being measured were also already articulated by the basic units of geographic information? We might allow that which is being interpreted its own history, its own complex of intensities, its own capacity for having had a variety of different interactions that were influential in its constitution, and different potentials for future interactions--we might say that it is an object (on which, more below) that is being interpreted. We therefore explore what one could call a geo-encounter (cf. Valentine, 2008).

In the geo-interpretation, the phenomenon encountered (previously called a property) was ontologically divided in its representation between three elements: the spatiotemporal coordinates at which the phenomenon occurs, x; the type of phenomenon under consideration, Z; and the actual observation of the encounter of r with that phenomenon. z(x,r). In the geo-encounter, by contrast, the interpretative scribe s now has the additional opportunity to specify what contexts, contained in a vector o, were relevant for the object (signified by [O.sub.0]) to have come to participate in this particular geo-encounter. What was called x in the case of the geo-atom--the spatiotemporal coordinates of the phenomenon under observation--is now folded in to the contextual elements in o, as potentially one among many. One may here again break with the assumption that all "geographic information" be defined by its primary reference to Cartesian spatiotemporal coordinates. In the geo-encounter, [r.sub.0] interprets (nee measures) the object with respect to Z--a particular property of, or perspective on, the object, or even a relation of the object to the interpreter--with the result being z(o,r). Let us encode a simple geo-encounter as: <o, Z, z(o,r), r, s>.

This concept of the geo-encounter has a degree of formal symmetry with respect to o and r. Yet this symmetry poses questions with respect to the relative capacities of to o and r: while by definition, r can perceive and interpret, it is yet unclear the extent to which o can do the same. Via the geo-encounter, we thus bring geographic information into important conversations in social thought about how subjects and objects, as well as meaning and materiality, relate. Appreciation of the insights that critical interpretative scholarship has brought need not be incompatible with attention to the many ways that not just humans, but other living and nonliving things participate in the world's becoming through relational process. Among others, new materialism, speculative realism, radical and speculative empiricism, object-oriented thought, actor-network theory, critical plant studies, multispecies ethnography, and Peircean semiotics all contribute to these lively debates (Barad, 2003; Bennett, 2010; Bryant, 2011; Bryant et al., 2011; Code and Frost, 2010; Ivakhiv, 2014; Kohn, 2013; Marder, 2013; Massumi, 2011; Parisi, 2013).

No single approach to geographic information could aspire to perfect consonance with such a diversity of ideas. Yet in the geo-encounter we find a theoretically minimalist approach that may be developed further in different ways through conversations these theoretical possibilities. In the geo-encounter above, we made reference to what we called objects. These "objects" already differ from the essentializing and self-sufficient objects advanced by most object-oriented programming and databases thus far used to construct geographic information. The objects of the geo-encounter are ontologically diverse and dynamic. By defining, thus far, objects (of which, some may be seen as subjects; see Bryant, 2011; Ivakhiv, 2014; Massumi, 2011) implicitly in the terms of events, the geo-encounter allows for several ontological approaches to be brought in to the core commitments defining geographic information. For those approaches that are more process-relational, events and relations may be prior, whereas objects (and subjects) are emergent effects (Ivakhiv, 2014; Massumi, 2011; Parisi, 2013; Roberts, 2014; Whitehead, 1978). For other projects, monads, objects, and/or matter may lie at the center of the theoretical project (Bryant, 2011; Leibniz, 2012; Shaw and Meehan, 2013; Tarde, 2012). Of course, many texts in the contemporary conversation among speculative realisms, empiricisms, pragmatisms, and materialisms cited above do not fit neatly within such a division. Regardless, further articulations and variations on the geo-interpretation can provide the basis for constructing empirical tools with diverse theoretical commitments beyond those derived from, or reducible to, the geo-atom.

Accordingly, we might imagine generalized geo-encounters, in which the interpreter has been further generalized beyond the exclusively human. One representation for a generalized geo-encounter could be: <[O.sub.1], [O.sub.2], Z, z([O.sub.1], [O.sub.2]), s>. Yet there is no reason to limit generalized geo-encounters to only two objects. Often, interactions among several objects, human and non-human, will be relevant. Let us thus encode a generalized geo-encounter as: <[O.sub.1], [O.sub.2], ... on, Z, z([O.sub.1], [O.sub.2], ... on), s>, given whatever number of objects, n, is appropriate to the circumstances. The interpretative perspective is maintained, albeit in a more-than-human generalization, with the convention that the geo-encounter is recorded in the way it is made meaningful to (or, in Whiteheadian terms, prehended by) the last/rightmost object, on, in this tuple--again, as argued/encoded by scribe s.

It is instructive to compare the generalized geo-encounter with what Goodchild et al. term the geo-dipole, which they use to theorize how geo-atoms might be modified by interaction and process:

We define a geo-dipole as a tuple connecting a property and value not to one location in space-time as in the case of the geo-atom but to two: <[x.sub.1], [x.sub.2], Z, z([x.sub.1], [x.sub.2])>. Geo-dipoles capture ... properties that are associated with two points rather than one. For example, Z might represent such properties as distance or direction in space, interaction intensity, time interval, flow intensity, or flow direction, and z([x.sub.1], [x.sub.2]) might represent their values for pairs ([x.sub.1], [x.sub.2]). (Goodchild et al., 2007: 251-252)

A two-object geo-encounter, <[o.sub.1], [o.sub.2], Z, z([o.sub.1], [o.sub.2]), s>, has much the same structure as the geodipole, <[x.sub.1], [o.sub.2], Z,z([x.sub.1], [x.sub.2])>, yet there are significant divergences in the theoretical commitments underlying their respective concepts of geographical information. The geoencounter (which has a basic commitment to situating the encoder, s, and has contextualized objects beyond just the context provided by spatiotemporal coordinates in x) will have a different set of potentially meaningful Z interaction properties and will allow for the possibility that the objects are asymmetric in how they render the interaction meaningful. By beginning a reformulation of geographic information through the specification of interpretations, performances, interactions, encounters, and/or relations (instead of beginning with precise specifications of ontologically primary entities to be aggregated and interrelated only later), we reflect a renewed commitment to the centrality of process and relation in new conceptions of geographic information.

On roles for spaces: relational and absolute

Such reformulations of geographic information may have potential to realign the allegiances of computational geography within debates in geographic thought, especially those regarding space. Concepts and practices of space are not solely a matter of abstract intellectual concern, but play a central role in late capitalist, Anthropocenic life. The construction of an absolute space, in particular, has been a tremendous human accomplishment requiring (and often enabling) many theoretical and practical developments, from the enlightenment cartographic project to much of the mathematical theorization of biophysical processes at the core of contemporary science and technology. In its constitution, circulation, and calculation, geographic information in its geo-atom variants has participated in reinscribing such an absolute spatiality, a container for entities that can be indexed with respect to the field's multi-dimensional coordinates constructed by a geodetic system.

Yet the adequacy of such concepts of space, often named in the geographic literature as Newtonian, after one of its key advocates in the Western canon (Leibniz and Clarke, 2000), has hardly gone unquestioned, especially in geography, anthropology, literature, and cognate fields where interpreting human experience and the cultural record have been important (Dear et al., 2011; Ingold, 2011; Westphal, 2011). Place is conceived not as a bounded and singular phenomenon but as a contested, narrated, networked, more-than-local intersection of processes (Adams et al., 2001; Massey, 2005; Pierce et al., 2011). Often from materialist positions, geographers have also long explored how the social and the spatial are mutually constitutive in urban and economic geographies across a variety of scales (Harvey, 1996; Sheppard and Barnes, 1990; Smith, 1984; Soja, 1980). The spatiality of social processes and relative positionalities of entities may well differ significantly from their relative distances in absolute spaces. One metaphor invoked to illustrate the complexities of social spaces has been that of wormholes (Sheppard, 2002). In all such pursuits, however, relational conceptions of space have received prominence, though the meanings and implications of such a shift in the concept of space remain under contest and construction (Malpas, 2012; Massey, 2005; Sheppard, 2008). The relative lack of support for such conceptions of space in geographic information has been critiqued (e.g. by Sheppard, 2005; though also see Freundschuh and Egenhofer, 1997; Massey, 1999; Raper and Livingstone, 1995).

The geo-interpretation and the geo-encounter bring simple relational conceptions of space into conversation with the absolute spaces that are constructed by previous concepts of geographic information. Geo-interpretations and geo-encounters do not stand alone, but within themselves reference additional geo-interpretations, geo-encounters, and/or potentially other phenomena, forming rich semiotic and processual webs. In doing so, they trace contributions to how spaces are produced and serve as active moments within sociospatial unfoldings. One way we may wish to interpret this, methodologically and ontologically, is that geo-interpretations and geo-events can therefore lend support to baroque, monadological readings of spatiality, in which we look not just outward, but inward, into phenomena to locate complexity and the global (Deleuze, 1993; Harvey, 1996; Latour et al., 2012; Leibniz, 2012; Tarde, 2012; and especially, Law, 2004). Internal relations may be explored interactively in their immediate heterogeneity, perhaps in a geographical analogue to how they have been by Latour et al.'s (2012) digital and monadological rethinking of the social.

Relations of geo-interpretations or geo-encounters may be reread as constituting mathematical networks interlinking objects. Many such networks are possible, depending on which types of relations (properties) are selected, as well as on whether (and how) they are understood to express relative degrees of interrelation among entities. To help fashion a visual interpretative practice for more-than-qualitative relational spaces, we might reappropriate how cartographers have constructed "distance cartograms" that fold, stretch, tear, and reattach absolute space until it approximately reflects other relationships among points than those based on physical distance (Gatrell, 1983; Tobler, 1961). If our webs of geo-interpretations contain some references to latitudes and longitudes in absolute space, hybrid cartographies that explore the intersection between absolute and relative spaces are possible. As interpretative spaces proliferate, so would coordinates associated with the resulting more-than-Cartesian geographic imaginaries, coordinates which may be far from easily reconcilable due to their associated differences in standpoints. We must design interfaces facilitating iterative interpretation and exploration (Drucker, 2009, 2011) of the resulting complexities of material and semiotic relations captured (cf. Martin and Secor, 2014). Here, we may find it helpful to build on work in critical GIS (Jung and Elwood, 2010; Knigge and Cope, 2009; Kwan and Ding, 2008) as well as diverse strategies of artistic engagements with cartography (see Crampton, 2009; Thompson, 2008).

Computational openings

In order to realize such ontological proposals in computational practice, creative approaches to data structures are needed. The ontological possibilities and practical success of classical geographic information have been closely associated with the tabular form, as argued above. The development of computing, intertwined as it has been with the needs of bureaucratic (in the Weberian sense) corporate capital, developed a solution to the storage, querying, and manipulation of large amounts of tabular data in "relational databases" (Castelle, 2013), (7) coming into development in the 1970s and dominance in the 1990s to 2000s. Variants of the associated language SQL can be used to construct and manipulate tables, enabling various criteria to be used to join, transform, and excerpt previously unconnected tables. Although the history of geographic information constitution and storage has seen the usage of various models for conceptualizing and organizing data, including object-oriented databases, geographic information today is largely shaped by connections to relational database thought and practice. "Spatial" relational databases, at the core of most GIS today, supplement relational database frameworks with efficient ways of indexing and operating on relational database records that are defined to exist within an absolute Newtonian space (see Shekhar and Chawla, 2003).

Yet the approach to an interpretative, situated knowledge in relational spaces introduced above appears to move beyond static and self-sufficient logics of objects, entities and properties, instead calling forth networks of diversifying, proliferating, events interrelating emergent objects. Fortunately, relevant practical alternatives to the relational database ontological paradigm do increasingly exist, especially in the forms of the semantic web and graph databases (Hart and Dolbear, 2013; Robinson et al., 2013). The latter, especially, have been taken up and developed rapidly by industry, resulting in efficient, open-source, absolute-space-aware databases whose ontological building blocks are not tables but diverse entities and their interconnections, neither of which need to be characterized ahead of time. This is a fortunate coincidence for efforts to constitute computational approaches embracing relational spaces, vibrant matter, and situated knowledge.

A key challenge will be to facilitate operations on such stores of data which support deferring semiotic closure. Our computation should be faithful to the shifting, interpretative character of our vision, not operate under the presumption that entities and first-order connections within the data store have been rendered entirely present. Such efforts need to not be tempted by a rush to computation, but to proceed slowly, in allegiance to and conversation with the rich traditions of interpretative scholarship. As time passes, will we constitute a critical geographical analysis responding not only to quantity, but at the same time, to interpretation, to context, to relation, and possibly to contradiction as well (cf. Bergmann et al., 2009; Doel, 2001; Lawson, 1995; Sheppard, 2001; Wyly, 2009)? This article suggests one possible approach to constructing the operands, but we would need more operators as well, and cautious research.

Toward speculative data

Computation and engagements with digital data are quite prevalent and valued in the academy, even in fields for which interpretative inquiry and continental social thought have been influential. Computational engagement with geographic data has even become a part of daily life over the past decade for those around the world with access to digital networks.

At present, scholars committed to situated, interpretative knowledge and relational concepts of space face dilemmas when invited to participate in these larger academic and societal computational practices. Does such a scholar participate with the hope that she can find ways to adequately trouble the epistemologies and ontologies assumed in the construction and use of a data genre such as "geographic information"? Does she participate, yet advance a pluralist dialogue between knowledge production practices? Does she reject participation in mainstream practices, wary of power differentials between approaches to inquiry, choosing instead to cultivate her work on its own terms?

I have offered support for a distinct, yet relevant, choice. We may articulate critiques of concepts and practices associated with "data" today, concepts and practices being often at odds with the ways many fields would otherwise engage in scholarly inquiry. But these insights can first and foremost be put to use in reconstructing those very concepts and practices of "data". Results obtained can increase the legibility of, legitimacy of, and resources for our scholarly commitments within worthwhile larger academic and societal conversations. But most importantly, interventions that realize approaches to constituting computation and data in closer resonance to critical social scientific and theoretical humanistic modes of inquiry are intellectually empowering to those very modes of inquiry on their own terms, offering both a digital empirical practice more easily countenanced and an interlocutor for exploring theoretical propositions. Computation and data have many potentialities. With our critical participation, we help shape which potentialities are actualized.

DOI: 10.1177/0263775816665118


I greatly appreciate the community around the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities and its Society of Scholars, as well as the inspirational milieu created by my colleagues associated with the "Revisiting Critical GIS" meeting in October 2014 at Friday Harbor, Washington.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities and its Society of Scholars provided support for this study.


(1.) Berry's self-conscious reappropriation for geography of the approach of an economist who had proposed how anthropology might organize and understand data and analysis (Berliner, 1962) is perhaps also evocative of classificatory strategies familiar to regional geography, such as Hettner's Ldnderkundliche Schema (Barnes, 2011).

(2.) Others, such as Gunnar Olsson, would later take the critique of related representations into fundamental epistemological and ontological terrain. Olsson pointed out how the usage of language within the type of project exemplified by the geographical matrix cannot but render people as things and operate as if there were identity between words (or, often, numbers) and worlds (e.g. Olsson, 1975).

(3.) For an illustrative contrast, consider that tabular representations contemporaneously constructing input-output matrices and social network relationships (Isard, 1960; Wasserman and Faust, 1994) may have more potential for relational ontologies. Such matrices do not represent entities merely in terms of their intensive characteristics, but express entities through representing their interconnections with other entities, whether ontologically similar or different. Associated analytical methods (such as those using the Leontief Inverse (Leontief, 1986) to explore the geographies of labor or carbon embodiments to commodities) also understand entities in terms of infinite tracings of the connective webs the matrices thus defined, a deferral of meaning that might even suggest comparisons with differance (Derrida, 1981) if it were not for the common (though not universal) coupling of quantification with a positivist desire for presence and equivalence: the "=", a different "symbol of mimetic desire" than that which "permeates deconstruction" (Olsson, 1991: 167-181).

(4.) Scholars who have sought to incorporate a sensitivity to subjectivity into our concepts of data have suggested that if "data" implies that it is that which is given, using the term "capta" would recognize that which is taken by situated individuals (Drucker, 2011; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011). Here, I provisionally retain the term "data" while exploring how one might reconstruct a significant genre of data to better resonate with relevant insights and debates of social-theoretic inquiry.

(5.) Critical and feminist GIS scholarship has created many openings for multiple readings and standpoints in research by critiquing and detourning already existing GIS assemblages (Dunn, 2007; Elwood, 2006; Knigge and Cope, 2009; Kwan, 2002; Kwan and Ding, 2008; Schuurman, 2006). This article supplements such efforts by engaging theoretical assumptions leading GIScientists argue are key to constructing those GIS assemblages.

(6.) By comparison, for approaches to qualitative research within geographic information systems, see, inter alia, Cope and Elwood (2009), Jung and Elwood (2010), and Wilson (2009).

(7.) This use of the term "relational" is a potent source of confusion. For databases, "relational" does not refer to a relational ontology in any of the diverse senses discussed elsewhere in this article and in social thought generally today. Relational, in the sense of databases, is a technical adjective that refers to the formalism used in the constitution of certain types of databases (Codd, 1970).


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Luke Bergmann

University of Washington, USA

Luke Bergmann is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington.

Corresponding author:

Luke Bergmann, Department of Geography, University of Washington, Box 353550, Seattle WA 98195, USA.

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Date:Dec 1, 2016
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