books Me science

Emotional Cartography book launch talk

The Emotional Cartography book launch was on friday and went off a treat. Since I had, unusually for me, planned my talk by writing it out in full I have reproduced it below. This is more-or-less what I said:

There is a saying that those who want to enjoy laws and sausages should not find out how they are made. I think the same is true about facts. Or rather I think that anyone who wants to believe in simple honest facts, objective lumps of knowledge which are true and eternal, ought to stay away from the places where facts are produced. When you see how facts are made you ought to gain, I believe, a healthy scepticism about how they are used.

I am a scientist — an experimental psychologist — and I work in a University. In the University, in the Faculty of Science, we like to think we are the factory of facts. Yet, it still surprises me that some of my colleagues still believe in simple honest facts, even after years in the workrooms squeezing the meat of messy reality into the offal tubes of truth. Many times I’ve been faced down by these colleagues who refuse to believe that some complex social or political dilemma is really problematic. “Just find out the facts” they say. “When we know the facts, what do — about schools, israel-palestine, whatever — will become obvious”

Curious that anyone who has seen facts being made can still believe that on their own they’ll help!

I’m reminded of another quote, this one by Matt Cartmill – Professor of Biology, at Duke University. He said,

“As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life – so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so that you can meet girls.”

Now don’t get me wrong, facts do exist. We look to the stars and ask if things can be known — can things be known? And things can be known. There is right and wrong, true and untrue. Facts, in this sense, do exist. But they aren’t enough for a balanced intellectual diet.

I think facts are seductive because they take a lot of technical skill to produce. If you want to make even a basic truth which will hang together long enough to survive being passed around, you need a lot of disciplinary training. You need expensive and complex measuring equipment, you need esoteric statistical techniques and you need to make the right comparisons. All this takes time and money and a lot of discipline specific experience. No wonder scientists are proud of their facts, and the facts themselves invoke some envy and respect.

The problem is that facts always — always! — come with a set of presumptions, they always come along with a view of the world that they promote.

If you’ve read Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, his sprawling riotous novel of wartime paranoia you might know one of his Proverbs for Paranoids: “If you can get them asking the wrong questions, you don’t have to worry about the answers”

To stop this getting too abstract, and to bring it back to the book that we’re gathered here to launch, let’s talk about maps.

Everyone interested in maps should read Dennis Wood’s “The Power of Maps”. I believe this so strongly I have forced myself to only say this once, so that was it.

I read this book while I was working on a thing called the Sheffield Greenmap. Greenmaps are community mapping projects designed to mark environmental and community sites in a local area. Dennis Wood talks about the selective accuracy of maps, how they show one part of the world, and can seduce you into thinking (because of the professionalism of their accuracy) that their representation is the way to view the world. But, he said, “Accuracy is not the issue. Selectivity is the issue”. Perhaps because I was involved with the Sheffield Greenmap project these words of his resonated with me very strongly. Maps are choices about how to view the world. When I looked at maps of my hometown, maps which I would happily point to and say “this is Sheffield”, I saw the one way roads marked, the petrol stations. The base I used for the greenmap of the area around the University was based on the University’s own map. Running up the hill from the University in Sheffield is a road with parks either side of it. When I came to look at the University map, I noticed, for the first time, that only one of the parks was marked. The road, you see, was also a socio-demographic division between the leafy suburb of the university and the estates next door. For the University, the park next to the estates didn’t exist (or at least not as a place for students and University visitors to go).

The greenmap project made me look at the maps of Sheffield and ask why what was on them was on them. Why the roads and the petrol stations, why not the scenic routes through park, the community cafes and the places you could lock your bike up?

Accuracy wasn’t the issue. Selectivity was.

Wood discusses the ‘general purpose’ map as a particularly insidious example of interests using maps to mask their interests. The generality, the lack of explicit purpose, in a map disguises that it represents the end of a careful and directed process of selection. Like the scientific facts, the beauty of the technical process can blind you to the bias inherent in the construction.

I was invited to contribute to the Emotional Cartography because of Mind Hacks, a book I wrote with Matt Webb and a few valiant contributors in 2004. Mind Hacks is a collection of 100 do it yourself experiments that you can try at home and which reveal something about the moment-to-moment workings of your mind and brain. Our ambition with the book was to perform a smash and grab on the goodies of cognitive neuroscience, to open source some of the fascinating science that has been done, turning it into demonstrations which anyone could try. We wanted to make some of what was known about the mind available to be re-purposed by other people. So designers, artists, educators and whoever could notice and reuse various principles of how our minds make sense of the world.

Lately I’ve come to think — and this was inspired by writing the chapter in Emotional Cartography — that the view of the mind we took in Mind Hacks was limited. And this limitation reflects that of academic psychology as a whole. We focussed on the perceptions, thoughts and feelings of isolated individuals, rather than of people in their full social context, in interaction with others.

This is why I’m excited about Emotional cartography. It takes the idea of open-sourcing the production and consumption of facts to the social level.

First, emotional cartography. We’re a visuo-spatial species. We love sights, spaces, exploring with our eyes. We reify this prioritisation into maps, which are themselves inherently visuo-spatial. If you believe that maps are a kind of technology for thinking with, which I do (my chapter in the book is about this), then this is turn makes it easier to think about the kinds of things which are easiest to show on a map. The maps of physical space then make this selection bias invisible, by pretending to be natural.

Emotional Cartography makes another kind of information mappable, and this opens up the space to think with and debate about what that mapping makes explicit. For example: why are people anxious or excited in this place? Is that something we should do something about?

The other reason I’m excited about emotional cartography is because, truly, it opens up a space for emotional cartographies — a refocussing on the process of mapping and remapping. By open-sourcing mapping it allows mapping to be a processes rather than a product and this powerfully opens up space for people to take part in the negotiation of the representation of their own geographical spaces. Rather than one true map of a locale, there are many maps, and these maps can be a medium for the mappers to meet and discuss their feelings, the places where they live, and the interrelation of these two things.

So let me finish by congratulating Christian on his idea and all his hard work which resulted in this book, let me congratulate the other authors for their contributions and let me commend to you the practice of emotional cartography because, as should be obvious by now, in all areas of life, including map making, I believe it is far more satisfying to be a participant than a mere consumer.

4 replies on “Emotional Cartography book launch talk”

Tom, I could kiss you! I’m so glad you put this up and sorry I missed the talk itself. What a doozy, a thousand times yes!

[…] One of the chapters is written by our very own Tom Stafford who explores the neuroscience of the self through a case study of an amnesic patient from the scientific literature called SS, who seemed to be unaware of his own depression because of his profound memory problems. Tom also gave a great talk at the launch, which you can also read online. […]

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