GIS as Spectacle: The Corporate Rise of the Storytelling Narrative

Authors: Stacy Warren*, Eastern Washington University
Topics: Geographic Information Science and Systems, Geography Education, Social Theory
Keywords: GIS, spectacle, Geo-Inquiry
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 5:00 PM / 6:40 PM
Room: 8229, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


A subtle but profound shift in the role of representation in geospatial technologies has been taking place that threatens to change underlying relationships between data, interpretation, and geovisualization. While academics argued critical GIS epistemologies, and while geographers struggled to capture what was ‘geographic’ about GIS, producers in commercial markets have been developing and advertising geospatial tools that posit GIS as storytelling. This presentation considers the potential impacts of two closely related corporate initiatives, ESRI’s Geo-Inquiry and National Geographic’s Geo Inquiry models, in the context of theories of spectacle. The hegemonic role of spectacle in capitalist society, most famously brought to light by Guy Debord in the 1960s, considers the narrative power of technologically mediated imagery to mediate social relations. The spectacle – news, propaganda, advertising, consumable commodity – is at once faithful mirror and distortion; Debord refers to it as a “map of this new [commodity] world.” The recent emphasis on storytelling encourages reassessment of how GIS is being marketed as a “map of this new world” by commercial entities such as ESRI and National Geographic. Both actively promote geospatial storytelling as an educational tool, providing specific methods and techniques that allow novice GIS users (as young as elementary school) to construct visual narratives based on geospatial data, images, text, and other media. Through close examination of GIS-as-storytelling materials, methods, and trainings available to the K12 community, clear linkages will be made with the theorized role of spectacle.

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