Saturday, February 26, 2005

On the map

I used to consult to "News Corp", the media conglomerate started by Rupert Murdoch, and which owns Fox etc. I was working for a digital map division called Etak, which no longer exists, but which was sold to SONY before it disappeared into Bosch's map division, Teleatlas.

The reason Rupert Murdoch was interested in Etak, was simple. He felt that if he controlled the world's digital maps, he controlled a superb advertising medium. He could make deals with all the major franchises, so that the McDonald's logo would be as big as a national park, when you were using a digital map.

Well, obviously the web has made this a reality beyond In-car navigation systems, as my printer uses ink to print ads with the maps that I'm given by Mapquest and Yahoo. Google has entered this territory as well, and clearly is working to merge its google adsense program with the brave new world of digital geography.

But there's more that Google could do with these maps, as geographers and GIS people have known for years.

I was reading about the war between Peru & Ecuador, involving several remaining indigenous societies, over drilling rights for US oil companies. This is not something people in the US are aware of, and there are battles like this over potentially profitable resources all over the world.

An active map that geo-located poverty, resource extraction, torture, exploitation, immigration barriers, flow of money, exports, aid, development etc., and tied these maps into news stories, would tell an amazing, compelling story.

I understand that Google's intentions are to "do no evil". For that to happen, when a technology is self-supporting or profitable, they need to use it to "do good". Making the world visible is clearly something they are doing faster than almost any other company ... but focussing on the bottomline means their new features will be more about movie reviews, and selling products & ads, than about actually building a model of the world from the available data.

One thing that could help ... if you ever post a story about something that's happening in the world, give it an address & a "latlong", so google can put it on the map.

It's obvious, but is it visible?

Everytime a US politician speaks of the "Dangers of nuclear proliferation", some country like South Korea, Iran or China is mentioned. But the US is the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons. Its publicly available strategy documents point to the federal government's nuclear array as a key component to "promoting US interests around the globe". So, obviously the US is the most dangerous nuclear power, and always has been. Nuclear proliferation mostly endangers one of the major power strategies of the US.

Obvious ... but visible? How would you figure this out when hundreds of times a day, news organizations speak of "rogue nuclear states"? How dare those rogues threaten the monopoly of nuclear death held by the Federal government.

Again, how can we figure this out from text?

I was reading the John Perkins book "confession of an economic hit man", when he wrote of the death of Ecuadoran populist president Jaime Roldos, in 1981. Roldos had stood against profit by US-run oil companies in his country, and the political battle had become critically heated. Then his helicopter crashed, under circumstances so obvious that headlines around the world declared that he'd been "eliminated" by the US. But, inside the US, the press merely reported Reagan's condolences to Ecuador. Reagan's team clearly was responsible for Roldos' death, something that is much clearer 25 years later ...

How can a computer figure this out? First, it would need the text of all of the world's newspapers, going back as far as possible. It's pretty clear that we could pinpoint differences between stories which the world found important, and which the US press did not. This is a generally useful analysis -- the press will cover a story about, say, a newspaper strike, which is not visible in the newspaper itself. Or a corporate magazine might not mention a major scandal which the whole world is aware of. There must be a certain structure to these kinds of blindspots. That structure has not yet been investigated. The analytic tools have not begun to be developed for this kind of work.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

How can a computer uncover physical reality?

The election in Iraq is spun, by the US government, as a victory for the invaders and occupiers of the country. Reality is somewhat different. The leaders of the Iraqi majority, and the Shia & Kurd masses of Iraq, voted as an act of non-violent resistance, so they could get rid of the invaders through international pressure. This is so obvious, and has been mentioned obliquely in almost all US news reports of any length. But somehow, it doesn't stick, and the US government spins around it.

This is very reminiscent of voting in the US, where publicists and pundits debate endlessly the 'meaning' of a vote. Polls actually show the results quite well, but the obvious answers are ignored.

Take the endless referenda on sales tax in Oregon. This is always forwarded by a State congressional body that does not spend money according to people's priorities. And so the State congress wants more money. And people refuse the sales tax. And then the pundits ask "what do people mean?" The answer is in the polls, if anyone bothered to pay attention: people are saying "you don't spend the money well". Then the State congress sets it up as a threat: "give us sales tax revenue, or we'll cut money for schools." People see through this threat, stick to their principles, and still refuse the sales tax. State leadership gets in front of the press and says something like "people obviously don't want to pay for their kids' education".

The only way to fix this bad habit of government, in the US, in Iraq, or anywhere else, is to make institutions directly run by the people. Then they'll know what's going on, everyone will, because only through knowledge can a participatory system work.

In the original democracy, the greek city-state, citizens were elected to council by random selection, a process called sortition. In this way, so went the theory, the citizenry would need to become educated. Of course, more than likely they were just manipulated by the ruling class and their city staff. But the notion of empowerment as a means of full education, something the greeks called paideia, is one that needs to be rigorously pursued. And the internet can help.