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Towards an Atlas of Globalization

It’s cold in much of Europe this week, and it feels even colder when you can’t turn on the heat. From Turkey to France, people are finding themselves sitting in the cold due to a dispute between Ukraine and Russia over natural gas. The dispute is complicated, and involves the price Ukraine’s company Naftohaz pays Russia’s Gazprom for natural gas, the money Naftohaz is paid for gas transiting to Europe through its pipeline, the money Ukraine owes Russia and broader political issues between the two countries. In the past few days, Russia has accused Ukraine of stealing gas intended for European markets from the pipeline. On January 7th – the same day Marseilles saw heavy snow – Gazprom cut off gas to Ukraine, and to millions of customers in Europe whose gas transits through Ukraine. Some countries in eastern Europe are entirely dependent on Russia for gas, and others in Central Europe import more than 80% of their gas from Russia, so a gas shut off is a very big deal for a lot of people.

Map of affected pipelines in Europe, from Petroleum Economist magazine.

Most of us don’t think about the global infrastructure that makes our connected world work so smoothly until something fails. When it does, we reach for maps. Undersea cables snapped, meaning there’s very little connectivity to the Middle East? Better call Telegeography, a firm that studies global communications infrastructure and builds beautiful maps of undersea cables. The go-to guys for maps of gas pipelines appear to be the folks at Petroleum Economist magazine – the BBC is running a pair of maps from the magazine showing the affected pipelines and the wider grid of existing and proposed pipelines in the region.

(These maps aren’t cheap, by the way. A map series from Petroleum Economist of pipelines and oil facilities in a region costs more than $1000 USD. Telegeography’s products are similarly dear, which is more or less the only reason why I don’t have a version of their internet map hanging in my office.)

These maps gain so much attention, I think, because the failure of our infrastructure is an uncomfortable reminder of how dependent we all are on systems we generally know little about and usually don’t understand very well. The average Bulgarian doesn’t often need to think about where natural gas comes from – it comes from the gas company, up until the moment it doesn’t. It’s only when the car doesn’t work that we consult the Chilton guide; only when the gas, the bits or power isn’t flowing that we look at maps of the infrastructure we rely on for these international flows.

I’m starting to think that our understanding of globalized infrastructure is a bit like understanding of the human brain before MRIs and PET scans. Much of our early understanding of the brain came from studying patients who had suffered catastrophic brain injury and survived. A blasting accident that drove a heavy iron rod through the skull of railroad foreman Phineas Gage was a boon to physicians and scientists, as Gage survived but exhibited a personality change. The catastrophic event let scientists conclude that the front of the brain wasn’t neccesary for language or motor control, as Gage could speak and move, but might affect his reasoning and judgement, as Gage was impulsive and confrontational after the injury. (He might just have been really pissed off about the large iron rod in his head.)

Similarly, the collapse of AIG means that the average investor understands the role of credit default swaps in the infrastructure of the global financial system much better than before the fiscal catastrophe. A detailed overview of derivatives would have included some discussion of CDSs before AIG… but it took a thorough collapse for most people to understand how important and dangerous these instruments can be. Between 1997 and 2007, the New York Times mentioned “credit default swaps” 21 times in their pages; in the past year, 167 stories have mentioned the instruments. Sometimes a catastrophic failure tells us what features to emphasize in a map.

Given the interest in these sorts of maps, I’m surprised there are few atlases focused on globalization. A new atlas from Le Monde Diplomatique appears to address some aspects of globalization, notably economic inequality, but isn’t focused on the infrastructures of a connected world that fascinate me. My dream atlas would document the infrastructures of a connected world – the gas pipelines, telecommunication cables, airline and container shipping routes and power grids. But we’d need maps of flow as well – who pumps gas to whom, and how much? How does power move through the grid over the course of a day or a year? An atlas of globalization would map more than the infrastructure of our connected world – it would map the ways in which we connect and disconnect, and help get us closer to intuiting the ways we want to connect and disconnect.

This would not be an easy atlas to compile. The folks at Telegeography aren’t ruthless monopolists – it’s really hard work to obtain information about all the world’s cables, especially when companies want to keep competitive information secret. More demand for this information would likely bring the cost down… but might introduce new risks. It’s easy to understand why groups like the Department of Homeland Security would be concerned about having easily accessible maps of power grids, oil refineries, sewer systems. (Can anyone remind me – I seem to remember a PhD student who was prevented from publishing a dissertation that included complex maps of infrastructure in a US city. Does this ring bells for anyone?) As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, mapping flow can be even more fraught, as these maps require – on one level or another – surveillance.

Without these maps, though, understanding a connected world can be more about guesswork and intuition than scientific study. Having widely studied maps of infrastructure and flow – even if they initially make our connected world more vulnerable – would likely increase our security in the long run, forcing us to examine vulnerabilities and protect weak points, rather than relying on security through obscurity. In their absence, I would expect that the next time we pay close attention to globalized infrastructure is our next Phineas Gage event – the next misfortune that calls attention to the complex systems we otherwise succeed in ignoring.

(Many thanks to Eszter Hargittai for her feedback on ideas about mapping infrastructure, flow and intention, and for prompting me to think about the gas shutoff in this context.)

Gorgeous example of a flow map from Rocky Mountain Institute, portraying oil imports into the US from 1973 to the present.

16 thoughts on “Towards an Atlas of Globalization”

  1. Excellent post Ethan – thoughts on another map that would be useful: a map of the cloud. As computer-based services, software and applications become increasingly disaggregated, users have very little understanding of the distributive network that supports their purchase on Amazon and its delivery. A map that reveals both the distance and diverse actors and technologies involved in delivering all our data and services through the tubes is just as important as a map of the tubes themselves. Such a map would be extremely useful in conveying the reach of globalization and the importance of international cooperation in supporting efficient and unencumbered information flows.

  2. Exactly right, Drew. The cloud is a conscious decision to ignore the infrastructure and flows and treat it as a black box. When the cloud fails – a huge cable cut knocks out a key data center – there’s a scramble to understand how it actually works. Looking forward to reading the Economist piece – thanks for the link.

  3. Ugh. I wish I had read this before just dropping a course on infrastructure (http://tr.im/39aw) for one on China and India’s economies!

    One thought on mapping this all: ubiquitous computing/sensors could allow us to crowdsource it all. But then again, perhaps mapping anything but the endpoints would be hard for normal citizens.

  4. Very useful contribution, Kevin – one of the ideas I was turning over with friends in Dubai a few years back was the potential for ubiquitous computing and sensing to let us monitor and correct global problems. I started writing about the idea as “societal homeostasis”, the idea that only by closely monitoring global conditions could we react well to changes and try to maintain stable states. Smarter people than me – David Weinberger, mostly – observed that homeostasis is a pretty conservative concept and that maintaining a stable state is rarely want I want to aim for as an activist…

    Anyway, I am obsessed with the infrastructure of globalization, and the Ribes course sounds fantastic – is there something of his I should read? And the idea of distributed surveillance as a way to study flow and determine ways of building infrastructure strikes me as very interesting as well, possibly a part of the argument I was trying to make about incremental infrastructure…

  5. Our use of information networks is growing more decentralised and democratic. The infrastructure itself, however, still belongs to the large-scale, few-players model. This is even more valid for energy networks.

    It is more difficult to imagine a P2P network for fuel, water and sewage than that for data and electricity, but it is easier to imagine living without them altogether. Floating in the back of my mind these days is the lifestyle of Michael Reynold’s Earthships, where the reliance on infrastructure is reduced to the minimum. Reynolds promotes a modern way of living that works without any networks at all, save for communication (if you have a 4X4).

    Whatever happened to amateur satellites?

  6. I think that’s right on Amr. I wrote a bit about microinfrastructure some months back – see http://ethanz.wpengine.com/2007/07/02/incremental-infrastructure-or-how-mobile-phones-might-wire-africa/ – and I agree that it’s easier to imagine power generation and communication than railroads or sewage systems.

    I’m always a little suspicious of the “live off the grid” fantasy – it takes me back to some of the 1960s idealism in the US, much of which proved to be more talk than action. On the other hand, there certainly are people who successfully live with a low infrastructural footprint. (An old friend of mine is building an Earthship in Ithaca, NY right now. Bet that’s very cold work.)

    My hope would be for more and more creative ways for individuals and small groups to build their own infrastructure, and increased transparency around the big pieces of infrastructure. If we can’t build it ourselves, at least we can understand it better and push for ways in which it can be fairer, more effective, less corrupt, etc.

  7. Ethan, Thank you for posting about this. I just finished teaching algebra at the American University in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The gas was turned off in Sarajevo including my apartment so it was 6 degrees Celsius indoors (and minus 8 outdoors).

    I am writing from Boston where I’m attending the OLPC conference http://wiki.laptop.org/go/XOcamp2 encouraged by Edward Cherlin, who is organizing the creation of open source textbooks. I will create learning materials for algebra.

    Ethan, it would be great to meet and talk how or where we might work well together. I don’t understand why, but I was blocked from writing at the PBS Idealab website, ostensibly for highlighting personal stories, which I suppose are “too real”, yet I think true and relevant. I appreciate your help so that all might be appreciated and included. I will be in Boston until January 21 and it would be great to talk at the Berkman center.

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  11. Mapping would serve developing countries even more. It can create order, parallel to the disorder called governments. Education is a big issue, maps can identify schools that need teachers or those that have space for students, and thus mobilize teachers, students and volunteers.

    In the same respect, there could also be a mapping for areas facing hunger and placement of NGOs, so as to mobilise the non-profit and private efforts.

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  13. ran into this post through worldchanging. couple of things I like which you may already know about:

    princeton has a wiki on visualizing (economic) globalization – http://www.princeton.edu/~mapglobe/HTML/home.html

    best book on infrastructure, and it’s visualization, that i’ve ever seen – http://www.amazon.com/Works-Anatomy-City-Kate-Ascher/dp/0143112708/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1233636361&sr=1-1

    tufte has a book on dynamic visualization, would probably be useful for flows – http://www.amazon.com/Visual-Explanations-Quantities-Evidence-Narrative/dp/0961392126/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_c

    terrific online resource on the geography of transportation, complements a book – http://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/

    an early stab at the geography of the internet – http://www.amazon.com/Mapping-Cyberspace-Martin-Dodge/dp/0415198844/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1233636671&sr=1-1

    ..getting a little carried away now

    this the book on economic globalization – http://www.amazon.com/Global-Shift-Fifth-Changing-Contours/dp/1593854366/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1233636671&sr=1-6

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