This is my second blog post for the CHI fellowship. Today I’m thinking and writing about digital maps, and how those let us see cultural and social divides in the present and the past.
Africa’s a Country, a website whose purpose is to counter that old mistake Western people make about Africa, recently published a piece about Johnny Miller’s aerial photographs of contemporary South African inequality. Miller’s photographs are taken from the air (what he called the “nadir zone”). The purpose of the photos is to highlight the spatial proximity of highly unequal communities, but also to show the powerful-but-narrow infrastructure barriers that divide them (highway ramps, fences, ditches).
I’ve also spent a lot of time recently looking at South Africa from the air, but through maps – usually Google maps, sometimes a historical map of the Eastern Cape region in the nineteenth or twentieth century. Some of my research is about the history of migration – of people and commodities – in the Eastern Cape. A paper I’m currently working on investigates the circulation network of a particular newspaper, through the postal address information given by people who entered prize competitions in the paper. As I find addresses, I plug the town name into Google maps, to see how far away the place is from East London where the newspaper was published.
But Miller’s aerial maps of inequality got me thinking about how my Google maps don’t show all the types of distance and difficulty that existed historically – the economic or infrastructural distances that might inflate the physical distance from point A to B. Some historical maps do this, by showing old road networks and political boundaries. But even they can’t show the degree of difficulty it takes a person to cross a boundary – a particularly salient problem in South African history when black people’s movement between urban and rural areas depended on a pass.
One of the potential projects that I came to the CHI fellowship with was to map consumer/newspaper subscriber networks in early-twentieth century South Africa. But how would you create a map that showed not just physical distance, infrastructural barriers, and political borders, but also degrees of difficulty that it might take for a person or object to cross even a very short distance?