Tonight’s Lecture

My initial personal takeaway from tonight’s lecture on digital mapping: It looks useful as an analytical tool, and for presentation, but in the end we still have to write narratives. Historians have to make choices, not present facts that merely speak for themselves.

During the question and answer period, the story-telling aspect of such enterprises became clearer. Apparently a kind of directed narrative is the idea. Unfortunately, that got lost in the presentation of tools aimed at the already initiated. An inordinate amount of space was given to talking about digital mapping per se and not enough about the history that he was mapping.

I would have liked to hear more about the insights that a given mapping project offers. If digital mapping were a product for sale, I would be the consumer who needs to be convinced why that category of product is desirable in the first place. The issues involved in getting value out of a specific iteration of that product are secondary.

I think many members of the profession are at this stage, which is one reason why gaining professional recognition (tenure) for output other than the monograph is an ongoing struggle. We need to gain a better understanding of the value of these projects.

But this public event was a keynote lecture for a conference. Part of the audience included people who, like me, are interested in but not initiated in the assumptions and concerns of digital mapping projects. The other part of the audience, however, comprised conference participants deeply immersed in the tools discussed and the reasons behind their creation and use. Trying to bridge that gap is never an easy task for a speaker.

In any case, I look forward to the conference presentations tomorrow, optimistic that they will help me learn more about the historiographical motivations behind this kind of work. I just hope the history, not the tools used to do it, predominates in the discussions.


I was standing near the driver in my bus yesterday, waiting for the light to change so I could get off. When the light turned green, but the car in front of us didn’t move, the driver beeped his horn. I said, “People need to get off their phones,” which earned a laugh from the driver. Then he added something I hadn’t recognized about the situation: “Uber drivers are the worst. I thought taxi drivers were bad . . .” I almost quipped something about how automation will soon take care of that, but then thought better of it. Will we lose our bus drivers too?

Today there was this piece on NPR, “As Automation Eliminates Jobs, Tech Entrepreneurs Join Basic Income Movement,” which asks,

When we talk about the economy, we spend a lot of time talking about jobs—how to create more of them and how to replace the ones being lost. But what if we’re entering an automated future where there won’t be enough jobs for the people who need them?

This is an interesting, if not entirely new question, but also something of a gut punch when I think of all the ordinary human interactions I have in a day. On the other hand, it’s possible that the Silicon Valley crowd is informed by more than a little hubris and so can’t imagine all the areas of life that cannot—or should not—be automated.