Reaching Out for Who?

The Connected States of America: Is this an example of cartography, as the authors profess?

Carlo Ratti and his team are back. Ratti directs MIT’s Senseable City Lab, delivering very elegant “visualizations,” or an incarnation of neo-realist art. You think you’re looking at data. You’re really looking at something else. But what? We need to figure that out. To start, Ratti explains their latest Senseable project, a cell-phone cartography of the United States, in a July 2 OpEd.

Phone-Call Cartography

AMERICANS are more connected now than ever. Mobile phones allow people to maintain relationships with friends, family and colleagues across long distances. If you analyze aggregated cellphone traffic – as researchers at M.I.T., AT&T and I.B.M. did with United States data from July of last year – interesting patterns emerge.

The gist of the findings? On a macro-geographic level of counties and states, connections sometimes defy geographic boundaries like state lines, revealing hidden maps of regional spaces. Surprising? Hardly. You might intuitively know this. For example, you might live in Cincinnati, Ohio, but shop across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Maybe you often call the owner of a gun store you patronize. (Covington is known in part for its gun shops and lower sales tax than Cincinnati). For many intricate reasons, Cincinnati on a map looks one way, yet feels like another place in “lived experience.” Sure, it’s nice to have good visuals that demonstrate the complexities of how people interact with their environments and with other people (assuming the new maps are accurate).

Sometimes, borders even look antiquated and mysterious. Visualizations are a way to imagine “communities” (a tricky word that Ratti used in his OpEd above) along other–better–lines. This post below on Good explains a bit more:

This Is the Connected States of America – Business – GOOD

This is what our state lines might look like if we drew them based on who actually talks with each other, at least according to cell phone data gathered by MIT. These are the geographic clusters of who texts with whom within an area, from the MIT Senseable City Lab’s Connected States of America mapping project.

But now the magic has worked. The demo has turned the raw data of the connections into a “community” that imbues the reader or user of the interactive maps with a warm and fuzzy feeling of belonging to something more “real” than the borders imposed by government bureaucrats. Not sure what I mean? These communities are our new neighborhoods, in a Jane Jacobs vein. In that neighborhoody way, they are reassuring and natural. It’s incumbent upon us to ask questions about the raw data, for this now has deep implications in terms of our political unions, loyalties, and economies. Who do your taxes support? Who’s interests are not represented in the political sphere when they live “across the river” in a less-powerful Congressional district, for example?

Is this warm feeling new? AT&T has paid for efforts to manufacture such emotions before, as was the case with the enormously successful “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign above. 

We therefore should bear in mind that MIT’s project is sponsored in part by AT&T, and uses AT&T’s call data. (Or at least that is what I can gather from all the articles on this topic, but I’d be happy to be disabused of such notion). We should also bear in mind, then, that when we visualize these communities, we’re really seeing some version of AT&T’s communities. Do you suppose that Metro PCS call patterns look like AT&T’s? And what of the relationship between being an AT&T customer and belonging to a trans-boundary space? Is that good or bad? Who represents these communities in the political sphere: the community’s own people, or AT&T’s suits?

Some might argue that simply seeing AT&T’s calls is problematic because we don’t know anything about the content of those calls themselves, leaving us guessing about why those patches of community are forming. (Why would I be calling that gun store so much, anyway? And who initiated the call anyway?) Indeed, even Ratti and his team might be aware that the data is not an end-all, be-all, though they should remind reporters of that more often.
I agree with such objections to this work, and I’ve heard them before. But I think there is a bigger problem here that involves corporate funding, lack of transparency, and the immediate media hype that Ratti is able to move (coup: BoingBoing). The larger issue, at the same time, gets obscured by the reasoning that the infographics are step one, and the qualitative analysis comes next. The data dump is political in and of itself. Why?
Consider this: While AT&T shares its data with MIT, it fights to limit the access of FOIA requests to its information, a case that AT&T lost in the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, AT&T is also active in sponsoring “community-building” of another sort. While many are demanding equal access to the essential tools of communication in a tele-connected world, AT&T actively works to *break-up* these efforts so that it can tier services at its own benefit. AT&T is a cartographer in a truer sense. AT&T draws new lines to align community representatives (like GLAAD and the NAACP) with its TMobile merger (see below). 

AT&T gave cash to merger backers – Eliza Krigman

AT&T is lining up support for its acquisition of T-Mobile from a slew of liberal groups with no obvious interest in telecom deals – except that they’ve received big piles of AT&T’s cash. In recent weeks, the NAACP, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Education Association have each issued public statements in support of the deal.

If the communities Ratti shows us have a degree of reality to them, they are just as much subject to corporate manipulation as they are to seemingly unmediated social bonding or spatial opportunities of proximity. Could qualitative research address this kind of issue while also working with data that may be proprietary (and potentially not available to other independent researchers), and while also funded by corporate money?

Back to the original question: What are you really looking at when you’re looking at The Connected States of America? I’d say you’re watching an ad produced for AT&T, but I’d like to hear arguments otherwise.

Note: A new post at the SingularityHub, equally fetishistic about the revelations in these maps, claiming that somehow this is more “real” than “arbitrary” historically determined lines. And AT&T’s connections are what exactly? Natural? 

Are Nations Less Important Than Phone Calls? New MIT Map Redraws The U.S. According to Communication | Singularity Hub

by Aaron Saenz August 10th, 2011 | Comments (0) Who we talk to may be a better measure of how to draw our maps than the arbitrary lines laid down by history. MIT’s Senseable City Lab has used hoards of data compiled by telecommunications giants like AT&T to craft a map of how the United States is linked.


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