From the very beginning of the fellowship I was extremely eager to participate in the spatial mapping workshops. The reading I remember most from the only philosophy course I ever took defined map making as the process of using generalizations via simplification, symbolization, induction, and classification to construct a physical ontology [1]. This articulated an uneasiness I always feel when looking at any map. Like many of other “blue ID” Palestinians I always viewed maps as political, relative, and subjective. Moreover, even as a kid I remember being aware that maps as “epistemic tools” were designed for groups I am excluded from.

Interestingly, this resulted for many Palestinians in a weird cartographic-nerdiness. Like most, along-side the classic pre-1948 Palestine map (a hallmark of every Palestinian home), I have at least 10 additional maps relating to local and historical Palestinian narratives. For instance, one friend modified a modern map to include all 92 unrecognized Arab villages that do not appear in any official record (or online services such as google maps). Below is my own primitive creation, a map of 1947 Haifa (my on-again-off-again hometown), augmented with data from a list obtained via a FOIA from the Shin-Bet (Israeli Intelligence) with all 30 cafés and pubs that existed pre-Israel, including the political and tribal affiliations of the regular crowd (and curiously whether they serve alcohol or not).

My map and the Shin-Bet list from 48 used to produce it. The houses marked in green denote “radical” communist affiliated cafés that served alcohol.
A photo of I took back in 2015 of Wadi-Alsalib,Haifa. The Arab building used to house one such café. Palestinian teenagers often used such ruins as unofficial gathering and drinking places. Israel demolished most what remained at Wadi-Alsalib in 2019.

While these maps are an integral part of the Palestinian struggle, one can argue that this is primarily a response to the way maps were historically used as tools of “epistemic violence”. As noted by [2] “[mapping] technologies become legislation”. Since the aforementioned unrecognized villages do not appear in any records it is not surprising that they are continuously ignored by regional committees. This became even more apparent with the recent rise of Geographic Information Science (GIS), fueled by the proliferation of smartphone map based applications. In my first year as a computer science college student I attended a lecture by the founders of “Waze”, a navigation startup that aimed at remedying some of the weaknesses of Google Maps Dr Watrall touched upon by crowed sourcing information from drivers. When I downloaded the application I came to discover that it was enabled by default to “Avoid dangerous driving areas and the A, B territories”. The dangerous driving areas included many Palestinian neighborhoods, including some that have been in under Israeli jurisdiction since 1967. Unsurprisingly, no such option is available if you wish to avoid Israeli settlements known for attacking Arabs. Note that Waze was doing exactly what GIS is supposed to. But when applied without context or care simplification, symbolization, induction, and classification created labels and kinds that cause actual harm. My friend was refused service by his neighbor, a Palestinian Taxi driver because the Israeli taxi company used Waze as a navigation tool and they both live in one of these “dangerous areas”.

Screen shot from Waze, taken from

When Dr Watrall discussed different mapping and tiles resources I couldn’t help by notice that they all use a modified Douglas-Peucker algorithm that keeps only coordinates that break linear trends interpolated from neighboring points. This results in the polygonal “zig-zag” abstractions we often see when working with maps or tile data [1]. This is not by algorithmic necessity, there is no numerical justification I can think of that favors straight lines (you could use any polynomial basis just as effectively). Instead I suspect that this is the residue of years of idealization of straight lines [3]. Early cartographers prided themselves on “extending the line …, notwithstanding the ground was very uneven” as a result “poles are often set in opposition to harsh natural conditions” [3]. This already resulted in a war when in 2010 Nicaragua justified an incursion into Costa Rica by invoking the GoogleMaps boundaries (This was dubbed the first google maps war) [2]. Not to mention the countless that found themselves on the wrong sides of straight lines drawn by colonial powers dividing unsuspecting populations.

I hope that as CHI fellows we can remain mindful that by using these tools we are participating in what Henri Lefebvre calls “the production of space”. I am not delusional to believe that we can fight back in any meaningful way against the specters of injustice plaguing geo-cultural informatics. But even if we must accept the tyranny of the straight line for the time being, I think it might be useful to at least call it by name.

Note: Epistemic violence relates to how groups can be excluded from systems of knowledge or knowledge production, resulting in narratives that erase certain view-points and rendering would be protestors unable to push back against these narratives. See Kristie Dotson’s essay “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silence” for an actual definition.

[1] Mapping kinds in GIS and cartography. Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther
[2] Territorial Conflict in the Digital Age: Mapping Technologies and Negotiation. Jordan Branch
[3] New Dominance in the Old Dominion: Steadying William Byrd in “The Secret History of the Line”. Geoffrey Kaeuper