Tool to Science

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

How subjects evolve?

The above quote was made by probably the first of the well-known Western Philosopher Socrates. Back in the time of Socarates, Plato and Aristotles, the men of intellectuality used to ponder about things material and spiritual. They were Theologists, Mathematicians, and Logicians at the same time. Once the ball of intellectualism had started rolling, more and more people delved deeper into the realms of the subjects. Starto (known as “The Physicist”) and Aristarchus (who anticipated Copernicus’s claims) and made important contributions to physics. Mathematics was enriched with the coming of Euclid. Eventually the body of knowledge started to increase, and soon by the time Newton had arrived, philosophy had spawned two new fields, namely Physics and Mathematics.

The 1960-80’s saw the development of another new field which has caused major inroads into all the aspects of our lives- Computer Science. When computers started being developed, mainly Electrical Engineers and Mathematicians used to show interest in the new tool. However, computer users started to develop their own vocabulary and as people delved more into the intricacies of theory of how computers work, they started realizing that the computer was not merely solving some existing problems but also enabled to create and solve a whole new spectrum of problems that were previously unknown. Hence the entire spectrum of problems that could be solved with computers and the ones they created emerged into a “Science” of its own called Computer Science.

What about GIS?

We the people working in GIS are at another cross road which is seeing the development of a new Science. The Geographic Information Systems cannot be called a mere tool anymore. It has amalgamated several fields which were related, but thought to be incompatible with each other. Today GIScience encompasses the Remote Sensing, Cartography, Geography, Computer Science and several other Earth based Science subjects. Several new tools have also gotten added to the arsenal like GPS which has transformed work flows. New ways of representing data have emerged. Active research is going on to solve a whole new class of spatial problems which was non-existent previously. The strong backbone of IT infrastructure is also creating interest in new data models, algorithms and large scale distributed GIS systems. Many of the existing academic fields have started showing interest in using and developing this new “emerging field”. The research interests in GIScience today are varied and far reaching. All-in-all GIScience is showing the same development cycle that has been followed by all the fields of Science that has developed.

So, it may be rightfully concluded that GIScience can definitely be considered as an emergent Science rather than merely a tool. We are at the crossroads where this transition is taking place. So, 16 years after the paper by Wright et al. there is little doubt that all the scepticism mentioned in the paper for a field to be deemed as a Science has been answered. The four conditions mentioned in the paper “for the emergence of a science from a technology” have effectively been fulfilled. GIS has thus progressed along the three continuums from being “a tool”, to a “tool making” to a “Science”.


-Dipto Sarkar


Demystifying the Persistent Ambiguity of GIS as “Tool” Versus “Science” –  Dawn J. Wright, Michael F. Goodchild, and James D. Proctor

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