Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Toward Speculative Data: "Geographic Information" for Situated Knowledges, Vibrant Matter, and Relational Spaces

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Toward Speculative Data: "Geographic Information" for Situated Knowledges, Vibrant Matter, and Relational Spaces

Article excerpt


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. …

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