Friday 4 June 2010

The love/hate relationship with GIS (Part 2)

Military connections
"The war against Iraq in 1990-91 was the first full-scale GIS war". This is the opening line in a paper by Neil Smith (1992) in the Progress in Human Geography journal. Smith describes the military roots of GIS and how the techology is (mis)used in modern warfare. Technology does not cause war, but Smith argues that techniques are not easily separatable from their uses. GIS are making war more "doable". These connections were clearly visible in the air and land operations, Operation Desert Storm, of the first Gulf War. Digitised map data was provided by military and scientific agencies. 3D simulations were used to navigate through the desert, and "Geo-smart" bombs were equipped with a video camera so their way to the target could be screened by CNN. Smith calls this a "perverse extravaganza" as the war claimed an estimated 200 000 Iraqi lives. Smith is conserned how GIS, combined with modern weapon systems, enables us to forget the actual effects of war by substituting a slick virtual reality (Crampton, 2004). The military connections of GIS have become stronger since Smith's paper was published (Goodhild, 2006), but the virtual reality version is "harder to sell" when Al Jazeera is showing the real effects on the ground.

Crampton (2004) makes a point that we now live through the second GIS war, but it is occuring in a very different way: through "war on terrorism" and "security". He is concerned about the freedoms we are in danger of giving up in the name of security, and how the GIS industry is becoming a "research arm of the security industry". This leads us to another big critique of GIS; its potential use for electronic surveillance.
Privacy, surveillance and geoslavery
The introduction of GIS has raised consern about information privacy, primarly due to its capacity of integrating spatial information and personal information from different sources (Dobson and Fisher, 2003). The technical practise of geodemographics has been especially criticised (Goss, 1995; O'Sullivan, 2006). Geodemographics is an information technology that enables marketers to predict behavioural response of consumers based on statistical models of identity and residential location (Goss, 1995). Its main use is to find new markets for products and services by precisely locating potential customers. A geodemographic system combines GIS with electronic databases composed of records of consumer indentity and behaviour. Goss (1995) criticies this practise as it's based upon a rationality that desires to bring the processes of consumption under the control of the production regime. He is also concerned about how geodeomographics displays a strategic intent to control social life, and how the segmentation schemes imply social judgement.

Dobson and Fisher (2003) have gone even further by introducing the term geoslavery for a potential threat in the near future. Geoslavery is defined as "the practise in which one entity, the master, coercively or surreptitiously monitors and exerts control of another individual or slave (Dobson and Fisher, 2003:47). Today, these human tracking systems are combining GPS receivers, mobile phones, radio transmitters and GIS technology to support Location Based Services (LBS). It is stated, in a quite paranoic way, that the "countles benefits of LBS are countered by social hazards unparalleled in human history". I presume theay want to provoke since their pricipal objectives in to forewarn the public, foster debate and propose remedies where there is lack of legislation.


  • Crampton, J. 2004, "Rethinking GIS and [homeland] security", GeoWorld, 19(3), p. 22.
  • Dobson, J., Fisher, P., 2003, "Geoslavery", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, spring 2003, pp. 47-52.
  • Goodchild, M., 2006, "GIScience Ten Years After Ground Truth", Transactions in GIS, 10(5), pp. 687-692.
  • Goss, J., 1995, "We Know Wo You Are and We Know Where You Live: The Instrumental Rationality of Geodemographic Systems", Economic Geography, 71(2), pp. 171-198.
  • O'Sullivan, D., 2006, "Geographical information science: critical GIS", Progress in Human Geography, 30(6), pp. 783-791.
  • Smith, N., 1992, "History and philosophy of geography: real wars, theory wars", Progress in Human Geography, 16(2), pp- 257-2718.

1 comment:

Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne said...

I would argue that the positions presented in this post are slightly misinformed. Cameras are not placed on bombs for the benefit of CNN, they are placed to assist with precise targeting. Any objective assessment of past conflicts will show that precision targeting has vastly reduced civilian causalities. War is a terrible thing, but misinformed statements don't help to further the discussion. If academics devoted some time to actually observing how geospatial technology is applied in the war zone they might come away with a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. Of course that would require leaving the slick virtual reality of the ivory tower.