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The mapping and re-mapping of information landscapes

09 April 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Fleurie Crozier
The mapping and re-mapping of information landscapes

Andrew Whitworth, Manchester Institute of Education

When it was decided last year that my book, Mapping Information Landscapes, was to be published in spring 2020, who knew that this would be a time of such dramatic disruption. Leaving aside (essential) debate about the rights and wrongs of measures taken, it is clear that COVID-19 has caused a profound, immediate re-drawing of boundaries between the spaces of home, work and public life, and on a global scale.

The impact of this re-mapping varies greatly. Personally, I am used to working at home, having been teaching at a distance for many years. But I am in the fortunate minority; most others are facing a significant transition. The economic impact will fall disproportionately on those working in innately face-to-face jobs, like pubs and hotels. The vulnerability of small businesses, the self-employed and those on zero-hour or short-term contracts was obvious already, and being confirmed.

Then there are the psychological effects. The removal of our freedom to leave erodes our privacy at home, as quiet spaces and times in the house, when kids are at school or parents at work, have disappeared. Many face anxiety and basic practical problems as employers demand changes to working practices at very short notice while still, in some cases, maintaining regimes of surveillance and a belief in ‘presenteeism’. Andrew Hill and Emma Jacobs in the Financial Times describe how some staff are expected in videoconferences from 9-5, regardless of other considerations. The spaces and times of home must be reallocated to work, and not only for wage-earners; children must now follow lessons online, and the availability of the necessary devices and bandwidth does not necessarily allow everyone to work simultaneously.

Moreover, arenas for escape such as the countryside, sports, arts and pubs have been declared off-limits. We have acquired the personal space (social distancing) needed to arrest the spread of the virus at the cost of losing access to our personal places. The long-term effects of this move remain to be seen.

The value of virtuality

However, in some ways the impact of this re-mapping may be positive, at least potentially. We are being forced to look afresh at our jobs, how we organise them, and what our mental model of ‘work’ actually encompasses. Organisations that until February dismissed the notion of homeworking have changed their minds, and many may be unable to re-establish hardline opposition. Hill and Jacobs, quoted above, note how some teams and individuals may benefit from being released from the micromanagement of a weak boss, becoming freer to map work practices and timetables around their own needs, rather than the business’s. We can start revaluing other associated pratices, like commuting. “I really miss using Northern Rail” is not a phrase being uttered much around my home town.

The information landscapes that we navigate and develop at work may be enriched by outside perspectives, or “virtuality”. This means not just the use of online sources and spaces within a specific workplace context, but an “expanded interaction with… [a] professional community of practice”. Ellie Sayyad Abdi bases this idea on a study of web designers, who exploit an innately online information landscape in which boundaries between this or that organisation are greatly elided. Academics are another example: few could work properly if dependent only on the resources and spaces available in the information landscape of a single campus. Layered over each ‘epistemic community’ is an extended landscape of information, and spaces for its dissemination and exchange, including journals, conferences, public events, archives and more.

This extended landscape, and the access it provides to varying perspectives, is valuable when it comes to making informed judgments about information. Virtuality permits what Christine Bruce has called “the experience of variation” to come into play, allowing individuals and groups to triangulate viewpoints and develop a solution to a problem that amalgamates these different perspectives.

Mapping as learning

The importance of processes like triangulation; how we organise resources in our information landscapes; how landscapes incorporate both physical and virtual spaces; and how we use the interactions within them as the basis for further judgements about information and technology: all suggest the value of mapping as a way of learning our way around these landscapes and the changes now being wrought on them.

This approach is suggested by Annemaree Lloyd in her book Information Literacy Landscapes, where she describes information literacy as the constellation of practices that emerge as people learn to navigate particular information landscapes. As practitioners do this, they develop a map of that landscape. These maps are not just useful for self-organisation — that is, developing knowledge of where useful resources (texts, tools, people, etc.) reside in this landscape of practice — but can be communicated to others, and thus influence other practices, just as one can be guided through a mountain landscape by a map.

But Lloyd says nothing about what mapping might look like as an educational practice, and how people might learn, and be taught, to map usefully and effectively. This detail is offered by my book, which explores what can be learned about information landscapes through mapping them, and how we learn to use mapping itself, incorporate it and associated equipment into our other informational practices. The intention is to aim and inspire future educational interventions that use mapping, while not dictating their form.

Mapping Information Landscapes explores the impact of positioning on our informed judgements about information and technology. Quality and relevance are always influenced by factors specific to the space and time that we occupy, and that point’s relation to other elements in the landscape, both physical and informational. The close correspondence between the terms and metaphors used in navigating both geographical and information landscapes is not a coincidence: concepts such as landmarks, signposts, guidebooks, finding a vantage point and taking a survey, the following of pathways and the making of decisions at key junctions; all have cognates in both types of landscape, a proposal explored in chapter 4 of the book particularly.

Most of all, it is the practice of mapping that ties these physical and informational realms together. Through analysis of moments in the history of mapping, including the creation of the Hereford Mappa Mundi (the world’s largest surviving medieval world map) and the UK’s Ordnance Survey, the book shows how maps are representations of key information flows, and serve as nexuses of practice. Maps help people ‘know their place’ — which can be a boon to exploration of a landscape, an essential starting point, but also a limit on exploration. The authority to represent a landscape, to name its features and declare what is relevant and what should be depicted on a map is a locus of power. For example, via the work of Salvatore, the book explores how maps and images presented in popular magazines like National Geographic fuelled the informational construct that was ‘Pan-Americanism’ — a front for US domination of Latin America in the early 1900s.

But maps can also be participatory, communal, and subversive. Mapping obliges the articulation of a position, an agreement of some sort as to what should be included on the map and what it represents. Mapping is therefore a way for groups to come to an agreement about what is relevant and of value in a landscape, and to organise resources accordingly. The book makes substantial use of the work of critical geographer David Harvey, an author not previously referenced in studies of information literacy, to support the importance of ‘triangulation’ and the experience of variation. These propositions are explored in the second half of the book, which analyses both published and original research into mapping information horizons (for example, the work of Sonnenwald et al and others using that methodology) concept mapping, and dialogic or discursive mapping.

Time for new maps?

Whether graphical, textual or mental, maps are adaptable, but not necessarily instantly. The maps that we use and create represent contexts that are not temporally ‘flat’, but are instead palimpsests, formed of layers that have ‘sedimented out’ of the practices of the past. Every map therefore records the past, as much as the present, and when there emerge discrepancies between these maps and the reality with which we are faced, we suffer anxiety, feel lost and may be led into situations that are actively detrimental.

At the present time, unspoken, but long-standing agreements on what our home and public spaces are for, who has the right to enter and use them, and when, are being fundamentally challenged, and the consequent stress is palpable. Everyone is having to reassess their place in the physical and information landscapes that surround them, and what the results of this trauma will be, no one knows. But whatever they are, when this is all over we will need to learn about the world anew, and map it accordingly.

Published: 14 April 2020

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