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I’ve got a brother who lives in Connecticut, not far from New York. I visited him not too long after September 11th, 2001, for no particular reason. While I was there, a 9/11 benefit concert was held in New York, and we watched it live on television. We watched a variety of performers come and go, as well as the audience’s varying reactions to them. Toward the end of the concert, The Who (one of my favorite bands) got up to play. They played Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Reilly.
And the audience went nuts. They yelled and screamed and punched the air and waved their flags and laughed and cried. They cheered themselves hoarse for a band they believed understood their pent-up national pain and anger. They cheered for their love of country and their faith in the future. They cheered for America the Beautiful and for four British boys who seemed to understand.
I sat in my brother’s armchair, drinking a beer and watching this spectacle in dumbfounded horror. Halfway through the second song, I jumped up and shouted at the television:
“Aren’t you people listening to the words?!?!”
I’ve been reminded of this fairly often as of late, most every time I encounter a discussion about the NoGIS ‘movement’. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the catchphrase, NoGIS is a term adopted by many Map Dorks to signify a perceived need for a paradigm shift within the discipline.
As a concept, NoGIS is meaningful and interesting, and its more sober and informed proponents have supplied me with some lively and enjoyable arguments and/or discussions on the subject. Of course, these are the same people who currently tend to shy away from the term ‘NoGIS’ as being inappropriate and ill-conceived. The problem is that the term was adopted while the concept itself was still rather nebulous and unformed. NoGIS was chosen as a nod toward the NoSQL movement, mainly – I think – because it sounded cool.
Anyway, NoGIS reminds me of that 9/11 benefit concert because for every sober and informed proponent of the concept, there are at least a dozen idiots who have no idea what the whole thing is about but have nonetheless jumped on the bandwagon because they couldn’t pass up an opportunity to wave their flag and shout. People who are afraid that there’s a revolution brewing and are terrified that it might pass them by. Kind of sad, actually.
Truth is, there’s no revolution. Nor is there a looming paradigm shift. What is occurring is a sort of branching of the discipline. A fork in the road, as it were. In fact, we arrived at that fork and passed by it some time ago, but it hasn’t been until now that the need has emerged to sit down and really figure out what it means.
Today’s GIS seems to have such different demands that it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the entire discipline is due for a shake-up. And it’s not just a question of size – while shuffling around terabytes certainly proposes certain challenges, they’re not terribly different than those presented by shuffling around gigabytes not too long ago. All other size-related issues fall into a similar category. While the demands get bigger and bigger, so do our capabilities.
We’re talking about other sorts of change here. Changes in the primary purpose our data is serving. Who is using it, how are they using it, and for what purpose? This is the fork in the road I’m talking about.
A meaningful split occurred at that fork (this is not to imply that there is any sort of divide in the discipline. We’re all on the same side here). A large part of the discipline continued happily down the road GIS has been travelling along since its birth, which is why any paradigm shift that happened was not a universal one.
But the new road called for a major reorganization of worldview. On this new road, the client became the consumer. The project became the product. The science of GIS became the business of GIS.
What I’m talking about here is the commoditization of geography.
Yes – it entails it different tool kit, but not a dissimilar one (we are not alone in this – any discipline that has both a theoretical and applied branch has these sorts of differences. This is most easily seen by comparing how a discipline is practiced in the academy compared to how it is practiced in the public sphere). And many of the tools do much the same job, but in a different way or to a different degree (a hammer and a pneumatic nailgun both drive nails).
What the flag wavers and shouters don’t seem to be noticing here, though, is that everybody wins. This fork in the road is a very good thing for GIS. The more directions we have research and development travelling in, the better off we all are.
As long as we all keep talking to each other. GIS will continue to travel down both roads (and I hope there will be more to come), and the best thing for our discipline and our selves is to share our advancements so that we can build upon and refine each others’ work.
If we must make distinctions, though, let’s at least do so in a manner that makes sense. We could apply any number of labels we desire, and many of them would make as much sense as the others. Personally, I like Theoretical GIS and Applied GIS (I’d like to think which is which is obvious). They’re fairly descriptive and neither one has any particular negative connotations.
I think it’s about time we drop this NoGIS crap, though. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to apply some meaning to geography, or to extract some meaning from it.
And that, my friends, is GIS.