Who is the crowd?

This post is written in response to both the articles covering the geoweb and those covering VGI.

In reviewing these topics, I’m struck by an interesting thing that seems unaddressed. Within both topics, there are extensive references to the power of open street map and numerous examples of OSM as an example of both VGI and as an important part of the GeoWeb. Recent discoveries of mass corporate edits of Open Street Map have upended the academic conceptualization of the product, and throw much of the rhetoric used in both VGI and in the GeoWeb into disarray. The main question raised by this development, as I see it, is who is the “crowd” in “crowdsourcing.”

The internet is an incredibly complex system. In understanding the internet, much research is focused on the interactions between individual humans and the internet. These interactions are the end-point of the GeoWeb system and the input point of VGI systems. These points involve extensive flows of information back and forth (a defining aspect of Web 2.0).

We normally conceive of the end-consumers as individual human beings. When these consumers are represented by entities that consist of large groups of humans, such as governments or companies, the way the system works changes. The end user can no longer be assumed to have one set of ideologies or use-cases, and the power of a single large multi-person entity may be exponentially greater than a single person. These entities have MUCH more complex physical bounds than a single person, so the offered VGI information from these entities may not fit well within our traditional concepts of maps. Similarly, the usage of the Geoweb by these entities likely fits the definition of “Geocomplexity.” in that it will certainly generate emergent spatial systems. The large scale relationship between the internet and institutions is deserving of further research.

Extending this idea, the entities that the Geoweb is interacting with, and the entities that may be generating VGI, might not be human at all. Animals with trackers that are uploaded to the internet, or entire ecosystems being viewed from a satellite play with our loose definitions of both concepts. Can the actions of a lumber company using online map data analysis to decide where to cut be considered a natural process?

At the extreme edges of this train of thought, the internet may be interacting with and receiving information from AI’s or from itself. These internal loops and systems happening inside a computer resemble those occurring outside, and when the internet of things is considered the line between physical and digital becomes blurry. Where do you draw lines?

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