Militant Democratization Part II

In an earlier post, I discussed the phenomenon of democratization of music via technology. Of course, this is not limited to music as this paragraph from Kevin Kelly states:

We see a similar phenomenon happening in cartography and typography. Both of
these were formerly esoteric practices. The number of folks who knew about fonts
and kerning, or rubbersheeting and lat-long, numbered in the tens of
thousands. But now that fonts are loaded into every PC, and kerning a matter of
dragging your mouse, when Google maps are a click away, the rote work of type
design and map making are done by machines empowering hundreds of millions of
new enthusiasts in these fields.

In this post, Kelly is referencing the possible democratization of taxonomy (I'll discuss his post on this more in-depth later). However, I wanted to focus on what he was saying about cartography, since my current occupation is as a professional digital cartographer. As I have mentioned previously, the field of geography has undergone drastic changes during the past few years. Beyond of the accelerating technological improvements, Google Earth and its ilk has brought a flood of amateurs into the field, just as Kelly says.

Due to the innovations of ESRI (the private company responsible for ArcMap, a pioneering digital mapping software used by thousands of companies and governmental organizations worldwide), geography was already experiencing a dramatic shift from the past. In the past, only a few could produce geography, then once ArcMap caught on every county in the nation suddenly was establishing a GIS department and producing in-house maps, investing in state-of-the-art aerial photography and LiDAR, and developing immense digital mapping datasets. This greatly expanded geography. As in the case of music, you no longer needed a physical talent to make maps, just a somewhat spatial and computer-based mindset.

Still, the expense of the software limited its utilization (about $1,200 for a single use license). ArcMap was not like Microsoft Office, where everyone had a copy. In addition, even if you got a copy, there was not much you would do with it since you did not have data. However, all this changed with Google Earth. As Kelly said, suddenly the field of geography expanded from thousands to millions.

ESRI is still dealing with the implication of this. I'm still dealing with the implications of this. As Glenn Reynolds has written, the Internet and new technology has created an army of Davids. One lesson of this is never to get too comfortable with what you are doing, because someone may come along willing to do it for free, distribute it for free, or find a robot who will do it for little cost (Kevin Kelly calls this being Turing'd).

When I graduated from college, Ottawa County did not have a GIS Department. In many ways, the department is still in its infancy, but the field of professional GIS could be heading into old age already. That's why I working a back-up: speculative fiction. Not much to hang your hat on, but I do enjoy it.

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