- Where Are We? The Method of Mapping with GIS in Digital Humanities
For decades, the "spatial turn" has shaped and been shaped by the thinking of scholars and students in American studies in regard to the production, meaning, and experience of space and place. The "digital turn" soon followed and intertwined with the previous twist: "The recent embrace of GIS and other digital tools by the traditionally technology-averse disciplines of English and history is connected to the theoretical recognition of the importance of spatiality."1 Thousands of mapping projects using geographic information systems in the digital humanities have become increasingly online, interactive, and critical over the years.2 What is the state of GIS in the digital humanities, and what is next? In other words, where are we? And where can we go from here?
Geographic information systems can best be described as computer software to design maps and the spatial analysis of geospatial data, that is data that include a location.3 GIS is therefore a tool used to produce maps and not a method unto itself; to describe GIS as a method implies that the software will collect the data and evidence for the research project and conduct the analysis. The display and analysis of geospatial data (i.e., data that include a location) revolve around the selection and application of colors, symbols, and spatial statistics to identify patterns, themes, and trends. While the term spatial humanities has sometimes been used to describe the use of GIS in the digital humanities, it also evokes a broader meaning of the study of geography in the humanities. I use the term DH GIS to refer specifically to GIS in the digital humanities.4
The approach of GIS projects in the digital humanities often repeats Karen Kemp and Ruth Mostern's assertion that GIS was designed in a way to require "scholars to change their methods to suit technology, rather than making the technology work for them."5 In this brief essay, I draw on my experience as a cultural geographer and digital humanist to address what I identify as the five major issues/possibilities for the state of DH GIS. I build these five points from examples of DH GIS. The purpose of digital humanities is not merely the production of data visualizations or archives alone but the critical production [End Page 641] and analysis of these materials. As such, I argue that digital humanities scholars in American studies are in a unique position to contribute to the growth and development of GIS and, in so doing, the growth of spatial thinking in and beyond the humanities.
Reworking GIS beyond the Military and Corporate Industrial Complexes
As Caren Kaplan and others have noted, GIS was created as a military technology and is now also equally embraced as a tool to further capitalism:
Two primary ways in which militarization operates in U.S. contemporary culture are the pervasive use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the primary model of data collection, sorting, and storage in use for over thirty years, and the practice of so-called target marketing, a geographically based form of classifying neighborhoods through subsets of demographic information.6
Building from Kaplan's arguments, Siva Vaidhyanathan carries this point farther and adds that "technologies that we purchase as tools of access, choice, opportunity, and freedom, Kaplan asserts, actually acculturate us to an invisible rigidity by keeping us always logged on, always present and accounted for."7 Collection of mobile geospatial data has transformed target marketing to what you have bought, liked, posted, and read. In 2017 Republican members of Congress introduced bills that would prohibit the collection, storage, access, and distribution of geospatial data regarding race or public housing, including the US Census.8 The ASA and other organizations signed statements condemning these bills, which have not passed.9 Corporations the likes of Target also issued complaints, as they rely on geospatial data to map and, therefore, spatially profile target markets, using race, class, gender, and other census data, as well as data from other sources.10
I add that choosing to accept the affordances and design of GIS-as-is only replicates the militarization...