Are we asking the Wright question?

In their article entitled, “GIS: Tool or Science?”, Wright et al. attempt to break down—not answer per se—the ambiguities surrounding the fundamental basis of GIS. They use online forum responses to gather data on whether the general GIS community perceives GIS as a science or as a tool. They conclude by insisting that there are three unique schools of thought—those who consider GIS as a tool, as tool-making, or as a science—and that underlying this question is the ambiguity of the word “science.” I have two problems with this particular article: one pertaining to the antiquated outlook on a topic (GIS) that has evolved since the article’s publishing; the other pertaining to its lack of a formal thesis.

First, in regards to the timeliness of the article and the data collected, this piece was written in 1997, and the online conversation that serves as the source of its central data, occurred in 1993. To put this into perspective, ESRI first launched the first version of ArcView in 1995 and ArcMap in 1999.  GIS as a concept existed long before this, but it was hardly user-friendly, and its toolset was nothing compared to the long lists present in the modern Toolbox in ArcMap’s user interface. The majority of GIS in 1993 was most likely command line-based, requiring a level of specialized programming to which relatively few people had access. The authors should have overseen a live chat rather than draw from four-year-old data.

Second, the only conclusion that Wright et al. come to is that there is no conclusion. The process of the exploration should not be “What are the different perspectives of GIS?” because simply by glancing at the title of the article, it is clear that the authors already knew the various perspectives of GIS. Rather, they should have outlined their working definition of science first and proceeded from there. A much more fruitful discussion would have ensued, likely with a conclusion on the major view(s) of GIS.

– JMonterey

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