Monday, March 31, 2014

Shipping maps and how states see

A map I put up a year and a half ago went viral this winter; it shows the paths taken by ships in the US Maury collection of the ICOADS database. I've had several requests for higher-quality versions: I had some up already, but I just put up on Flickr a basically comparable high resolution version. US Maury is "Deck 701" in the ICOADS collection: I also put up charts for all of the other decks with fewer than 3,000,000 points. You can page through them below, or download the high quality versions from Flickr directly. (At the time of posting, you have to click on the three dots to get through to the summaries).

I've also had a lot of questions about modern day equivalents to that chart. This, it turns out, is an absolutely fascinating question, because it forces a set of questions about what the Maury chart actually shows. Of course, on the surface, it seems to show 19th century shipping routes: that's the primary reason it's interesting. But it's an obviously incomplete, obviously biased, and obviously fragmentary view of those routes. It's a relatively complete view, on the other hand, of something more restricted but nearly as interesting: the way that the 19th century American state was able to see and take measure of the world. No one, today, needs to be told that patterns of state surveillance, data collection, and storage are immensely important. Charts like these provide an interesting and important locus for seeing how states "saw," to commandeer a phrase from James Scott.

So I want to explore a couple of these decks as snapshots of state knowledge that show different periods in the ways states collected knowledge as data. In my earlier pieces on shipping, I argued that data narratives should eschew individual stories to describe systems and collectives. States are one of the most important of these collectives, and they have a way of knowing that is at once far more detailed and far more impoverished than the bureaucrats who collect for them. These data snapshots are fascinating and revealing snapshots of how the state used to and continues to pull in information from the world. (More practically, this post is also a bit of mulling over some questions for talks I'll be giving at the University of Nebraska on April 11 and the University of Georgia on April 22st--if you're in either area, come on down. Some of the unanswered questions may be filled in by then.)