GIS and Society – Sheppard

Sheppard begins this paper with a beautiful metaphor for GIS: the escalator that geography can ride to finally occupy its legitimate position as a significant member of the quantitative and empirical sciences. I chuckled because I often find myself defending geography to my engineering buddies by saying, “Hey, but we do GIS, it’s like a real science!”

Kidding aside, this paper makes several good arguments that continue to be relevant two decades later. His first argument is that GIS is a social process rather than an apolitical technology. His historic examples of the Mercator maps and the Manhattan project were both useful technologies for one group, but tools of oppression for other groups. I think that we see this same dual process playing out today among GIS researchers, most starkly in my topic of drones. Today we have researchers working on GIS technology that can both be used to target precision fertilizers to improve agricultural output in developing countries, or it can be used to strike human targets in Yemen.

As a remedy to the slightly troubling path that Sheppard sees for GIS, he advocates incorporating social theorists to reduce epistemological biases. I think that in the early stages of the GIS discipline, it was easier to propose bringing together different disciplines. However as a discipline progresses, we see more and more branches and specializations.

For example, on the first day of class, I believe Prof. Sieber mentioned that there’s no such thing anymore as someone who just “does GIS”. You have to be specialized, you have to be highly proficient in software development. My point is that as any domain develops, researchers become so focused on their area of expertise that it perhaps becomes impossible to ask these broader questions from Sheppard. Therefore you get a situation, like in drone research, where you have the physicists and engineers on one side getting all the funding for research, and ethics studies on the other side doing all the complaining. I look forward to this lecture on critical GIS to see what productive paths have opened up towards reforming this unfortunate situation.



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