Rainer Ganahl 19995


Borges, Maps, Computers, GPS, Police,
Kant, Interfaces & Nostalgia

When Foucault discussed the Borges story about the map which occurs at a 1-to-1 scale - the map is as large as the territory which it represents - he regarded the charm and paradox of this situation from a conventional, "myopic" view. He conducted a semiotic reading that was satisfied with an equation of Signifier with Signified. Now we know that a myopic viewpoint of the observer is not necessary anymore. One can use an intermediary. In particular, a camera, or "platform", for remote sensing. The development of computerized satellite monitoring technologies, with their potential for displaying each pictured element (or pixel) at colossal scale, has allowed for a nearly 1-to-1, or at least a very-high resolution blow-up version of, geographical representations. Mapping has changed and with this the reading of Borges.
Computerized viewing technologies open up an extremely broad range of visual accessibility in the macro and micro realms. Whether it deals with neurological or geographical surfaces, DNA landscapes or interstellar clusters, computers are by now able to present us with a vast range of desired representations. One can quickly accept this fact. More difficult, however, is getting accustomed to its implications, in a new structuring of knowledge. Let us look briefly at one example of this vast array of computerized viewing technologies that not only expand into physical or astronomical space and beyond but also into the social, ideological and political sphere. A descriptive term may be "pan-voyeurism".
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of satellites and ground computers around the world which processes data received via microwaves from satellites, to give precise information on the position of an object. The object is looked at as a numerical coordinate on an orbital scale. This allows for an exact and absolute positioning on the globe. The points of reference are not found anymore in a given environment but in the globality of all positions in the system which in our case is our tiny shaky planet "Earth". Topographical representation has grown - as with Borges - as huge as the territories it represents, since everything is indefinitely split into bits to be traced at any moment from any point on any kind (screen) of representation.
What seems with GPS to be complicated and futuristic, and what appears with certain presentations in art circles to be "revolutionary", has already become a standard, even mundane tool for many users, some not even being aware of it. Many commercial aircraft now use it, in what is called a flight-tracking system. GPS's are also sold on the streets in Japan to car drivers and pedestrians as inexpensive digital maps to give them their absolute positioning in the labyrinths of complicated numbered street and house indications. As opposite to the traditional usage of a map where a person has to know its place in order to place himself in relationship of a represented place, with these digital urban assistants that are not bigger than a pocket calculator, the device tells the lost person not just his or her present position - street corner - but also where to go and which street to take in order to reach the user's destination. There can also be enormous military purposes for such technology.
Another example of digital modes of representation and screenings has more sociological implications. In Germany, for example, it has been used for the scanning of an entire population. During the 1970s, computers began to be used by the police for the tracking of terrorists, but in a way that also produced and radicalized terrorists. The technology was called "Rasterfahndung" (this means, "grid search", conducted to find a "wanted" person). As with the GPS, in a Borgesian way, the full population of the country was taken as a point of departure for tracking. Data was screened against specific interfacial criteria: travel itineraries, education, membership in political groups, information from libraries and other sources, frequency of changed addresses (in Europe people are required by law to report to the authorities the place in which they are currently living), even friends and affiliations, and so on, such that one can arrive at a small population for person-by-person investigation. Today this technology is used to construct social, economical, and ideological profiles of otherwise law-abiding citizens. In Germany in the end of the 80s a detailed national survey - including questions concerning sexual identity, education, income, health etc. - was conducted in conjunction with their new digital administration.
All information gathering technologies are interfaces and deliver information that has to be reinterpreted, rewritten for new interfacial representations. For example the digital emanations from a viewing territory satellite in orbit do not just have to be reinterpreted for all kinds of geographical, geological, terminological, hydrological, urban and sociological readings but can also be collected or mapped onto other interfaces, such as a musical instrument for sound production. The need for an interface, and the possibility of indefinite numbers of interpretations, makes technologies like a GPS satellite system applicable to almost any other facts. Sites or persons on sites can be overlaid with information, at that site, or at that specific person on site. The technology of targeting and locating becomes so precise that anyone and anything in the world can be tracked.
Viewing observation systems are similar to that in literature, where the acquaintance with a language and a system of writing allows for open-ended opportunities in collocation at any given site of different literary productions, or meanings. With viewing technologies, the digital information collected is not only open for interpretation but totally dependent on interpretations operated through interfaces. By precisely fixing, for example, with pixels each geographical site of information, and by allowing the overlay of any digital input to the sites and grids of any other collocatable information, today's viewing and mapping technologies constitute a powerful apparatus for constructing representations of the world of enormous utility and appropriation. All these constructions are done with interfaces.
The vast increase in possibilities results from interfacing. Interfaces are not to be confused with the relatively simple process of encoding and decoding where there is no difference in the before or after of these processes, where information or messages as well as the systems involved do not change essentially. Interfaces perform a translation between two or more heterogeneous systems and types of data that need to be translated. It is a passage and a transformation of information, energy, or something that travels from one realm to another one. Different to the communicational model with an equally equipped sender and receiver, which derives from the relatively simple 19-century signal transmitting technology, interfacial communication technologies involve heterogeneous participants without privileging a mode or a direction in the flux of translational exchanges.
Because of the relational nature of the interface, the common division between hardware and software does not apply as long as a computer screen or a computer program transforms, translates and communicates information, data, or energy. Thus, the interface is a descriptive analytical category that cuts across traditional boundaries of categorizing things and cuts across all kinds of technologies, old ones and so-called new ones.
Here one recalls Kant's epistemological and philosophical categories, which he thought were constitutive for the production of knowledge. For Kant, perception and knowledge of the world involved not just a passive capturing of sensual data, but a synthesis of the sensual inputs and transcendental categories of time and space adjacent to the subject. This meant that there was no "Ding an sich", no "thing in itself", but only a mediated, translated knowledge of the world. With this idea, Kant was first to recognize the translational, mediated and constructed aspect of the constitution of knowledge and perception. I propose to call this an Interfacial Passage and the power related to this Interfacial Power.
If we consider again the Borges' story of one-to-one mapping, interfacial passages can be found everywhere, even if we are not aware of them. One can be a visitor to a city which in its very plan is "mapped", such that for every site, every location where one can possibly be, there is an overlay of information within. Manhattan above 1st street is a classic example: the numbered streets themselves make a map as big as the subject mapped. A scheme has been overlaid not just over the city, but served also as a plan for its construction. The urban production of Manhattan was rendered along a grid oriented layout that turned not just the city into a grid but also turned it into a Borgesian map where a person always knows where he is on the map and in the city since all the streets are telling it with the accuracy of a GPS direction.
In the production of knowledge, this interfacial passage also has an influential, constitutive effect, but is also often unrecognized, for its nature is to be transparent, translational, and of course functional. This can be best demonstrated with earlier interfaces that are not at all digital in our contemporary sense, for example book printing. Every book mediates knowledge, transforms it, and distributes it. This qualifies a book as an interface, as does every single letter contained in it. Also, languages and writing systems bear upon the way in which knowledge is disseminated depending on their inherent pictogrammatic or alphabetic roots. A very interesting aspect of the Gutenberg invention was that from that moment on, books and book pages started to look different. The entire critical apparatus of academic books that is taken for granted today, could develop from that point. Tables of contents, indexes, footnotes, page numbers, paragraphs etc. appeared as maps of texts and were part of the big transformation of the scientific practice. This "mapping" of the text allowed direct access to specific parts of the texts and changed the way of working with texts that themselves started to be texts in response to books that became portable, mobile, and personal.
All maps also function as an interface. They position the site, people, and objects they represent, as well as the people making and working with these representations. Urban space and its representations in common maps usually tend to give only topographical information (some early maps also gave racial information through drawings of the exotic inhabitants). But maps and charts can also take a wider array of social, economical, ecological etc. data into account - income, age, race, sexual orientations, garbage, consumption of energy and goods, religion, languages, health, etc. - in order to deliver a totally different kind of topographical profile of what it represents. Comparable with the need for interpretations of data from observation satellites, all these representations are dependent on what a mapping mind produces even if these "a prioris" are no longer called transcendental categories (Kant). The political, socio-ideological, ecological, and economical importance (to name just a few) of the mapping interfaces at work becomes with the revolution in information-processing technologies more and more obvious since the data available are so indefinitely enormous.
Borges story can be read in a way that sees in the unmanageable amount of available data such a huge mountain that it has to be flattened out over the entire surface of the territory if one is to still move on it. Today people are nostalgic for the beauty of traditional and old maps since they deliver a world that seemed easy and manageable to understand. But the complexity and amount of data provided today from computers on all subjects has become so overwhelming that it can only be treated, analyzed and read through and with the help of computerized interfaces. So walking through a territory and a map of the size of this territory is also a poetic expression for the nostalgia of relationships that stay on a 1:1 scale. Unfortunately, orientation on such a 1:1 scale map only is possible as long as one does not leave the territory with which one is familiar. Is not this threshold to the unfamiliar and conflicted land also the beginning of any epistemological and philosophical thinking that is supposed to scrutinize any interfacial power that makes up - as Kant would say - the transcendental i.e. the conditions of the possibility of knowledge?
It is said that knowledge is power. If there is a capacity for the formation of knowledge, due to the capacity for the collocation of information about any given site, made particularly easy with the computer, then there is a capacity for immense power. One can build geographical data bases which create enormous understandings about all that is going on with a monitored - i.e., data-based and ordinated - terrain. Any digitization of information through any interfacial matrix involves an enormous, unprecedented increase in the amount and degree of power over whatever is being produced as knowledge. One has to observe and struggle to be included in the production of definitions and representations.
Rainer Ganahl, January 1995