Monday, 19 May 2014

Spreading Light, Wasting Light

This blog entry is about mapping, honestly...but to get to my point I'll start with Dave Grohl and then get to Robert Downey Jr and Steven Feldman...bear with me.

On a recent flight I watched (for the second time) the great documentary on Sound City studios by Dave Grohl. The iconic music recording studio in Los Angeles was one of only a very few in the world to house a custom Neve 8028 24-track recording console designed by Rupert Neve. It was a hand-wired analog device which acted as the interface between the musician and the tape used to record the music but it was the console that gave the end product such a rich, unique sound. Often, musicians would need to play their track over 150 times to get it as they wanted it with all the imperfections ending up on the tape. They not only had to master their trade but be dedicated to giving their best live performance that would become the recorded piece. With only 24 tracks available on the console, the producers also had to be prudent and understand how a complete track was to be constructed to achieve their intended final sound.

The story is ultimately one of decline of Sound City as a viable business (it closed in 2011) despite it being the birthplace of countless classic albums produced in the late twentieth century as digital recording appeared and along with drum machines and other digital instruments, allowed people to record direct to a computer. The benefit's of digital recording are clear - the entry level for people making and recording music are massively decreased; the costs are much lower to make a recording; and anyone with a computer can record music. By using a program like Pro Tools you can play a track once then work on your computer to change duff notes, alter the pitch, add a range of effects (curiously with an image of an effects pedal you'll never likely have even seen in real life) and record as many tracks as you care. In short, it's making music for dummies and we've seen a proliferation of music appear as a result, all of it seeking perfection through a processed approach. You actually don't even need to be a musician to make an album these days. No craft, no art, no expertise as such...just working with digital data that equates to music when processed in a particular way.

However, as one contributor put it eloquently, there's nothing of the musician in much modern digitally produced music. A huge amount is over-produced with multiple layers of noise. What made music recorded through the Neve board at Sound City so immersive was the imperfections; the fact that you're listening to a real person play a real instrument with all minor imperfections in their playing exposed. It gave the music a 'feel' and a human quality that is difficult to express but which can be easily heard. It's an audible aesthetic and one that cannot be replicated in the same way using modern technology. The same commentator went on to say that yes, music recording has opened up like never before but he challenged us to consider whether it meant there was any better music out there. His thesis was simple..that all that has happened is more people with a lower level of ability or understanding of music (playing, recording, producing) now make music - but that there's a much higher proportion of poor music as a result. It's harder to find the quality any more because quantity sells.

Back to cartography - but as anyone who has read my blog before will realise, the above tale is pretty much verbatim my views on a lot of modern mapping. The death of expertise and massively reduced barriers to making maps has given us quantity but has seriously diluted the quality. People are becoming blinded to high quality mapping because they're consistently told to go look at this or that 'great' map by people who probably couldn't tell the difference anyway.

So my latest gripe is with the plethora of animated maps of social media data that are using CartoDB's torque engine. I like what CartoDB are doing and their torque engine is a very simple way to animate time-dependent data. But what of the result - how is it being used? Take a look at the following map of how Robert Downey Jr's twitter account gained followers in the first 24hrs after his first tweet:

And the man himself even commented on the map:
So what does the map show? I think Downey Jr was spot just shows him spreading light. Actually, it doesn't really show anything at all, except for twitter's absence in China. So a huge global movie star gains followers in places where people live. Are we amazed? And I'll not even bother to go into the pitfalls of the problems of mapping and inferring anything from Twitter data (because I've done that before).

Here's another of the tweets that were posted around the recent F.A. Cup Final between Arsenal and Hull City:'s just flashing light. What purpose does it actually serve? Visually, I like the effect but it really only shows us that people tweet. And therefore tweets reflect where people are on the planet. And Arsenal are much more popular than Hull City. And perhaps my good friend Steven Feldman is the one responsible for lighting up the UK as a twitter loving Arsenal fan?

There's just nothing particularly substantive about making maps like this. Once you've seen one you've seen them all. The digital tools make making the map very simple but it doesn't mean we're seeing good maps. It's quite literally a data dump on a map. There's no sorting, sifting, no trying to extract an interesting story or communicate a highlight (no pun intended though this would be a useful thing to do!). Light is cumulative and brighter = more but why are we so fascinated by 'more' of everything?

When I look at the map I see flashing light but after a short while I lose sight of the light area (most tweeting in relative terms..and really, the only metric this map is capable of displaying) because the almost strobe effect of the single tweets in the sparse areas becomes more prominent. Is this really the right message? And when the map is saturated with tweets what are we seeing? Anything?

I find the story of Sound City and its demise in the face of the onslaught from digital music has many parallels with my area of expertise. Whilst there's no doubt making maps these days is massively improved on many of the older techniques it doesn't necessarily equate to there being better maps. Like Grohl, who is a master of his craft (whether you like his music or not), many musical experts can still find ways to make their music and embrace digital technologies as part of their workflow. Trent Reznor is also a perfect example of this. A musician who knows his craft but is hugely experimental and who can weave modern technology into his work expertly.

I'm not decrying technological innovation and progress - just lamenting the decline of the thought that people used to have to put into making a map. If it was worth making it'd take time...and so that cost alone was a good way to decide if making the map was worth the investment. These sorts of maps can be made in minutes but without any sort of cartographic craft you end up making maps of flashing lights that tell us nothing or, as the title of Grohl's last Foo Fighters record're simply "Wasting Light'.

Update 1: there was an interesting side debate on this topic where some were suggesting that frivolous maps are nice once in a while. I agree. Firstly that this sort of animated map of social media data is content frivolous but also cartographically frivolous. It's experimental and at the moment we're in a period of cartographic change where for the first time in a long time technology is outpacing best practice. Experimentation is good and we need to figure out ways to harness these new approaches and to develop new best practices. This is a challenge and one that cartographers need to embrace. Unless they do, all we'll see is more of this type of mapping and more people telling more people how great it is.


  1. Thanks Kenneth for taking the time to write this — you have written about this before so I know it’s something you obviously care about.

    However, as the creator of most of these maps, there’s a few things I would raise.

    Firstly, I wouldn’t overthink these. Both maps had a really simple purpose that animating them over time worked to do:

    - The Robert Downey Jr map was about showing how quickly RDJ’s followers grew on Twitter around the globe in the first moments after his first Tweet
    - The FA cup final map was about showing the geographic spread of a UK event for both team. What it did need was annotation; which was something we managed to do for the Champions League final a week later:

    There’s a number of issues here: if you want to show tweets geographically, over time, then Carto DB is the best way to do it, there really isn’t a better tool for the non-developer to use.

    And that is a real issue: why aren’t there more visualization tools or techniques for showing Twitter Data? I would love some more options, and maybe this is something you could turn your column to — how would you illustrate this data? I’d love to see it.

    Sure, we could probably tell these stories with a line chart; but what kind of boring world would that be?

    One thing is certain: during the world cup we will use Carto DB again to tell compelling visual stories around games. We may even see you write this column again.


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