Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Real boundaries

There are two major kinds of maps that people tend to use: geographic and political. The first kind represents the nature: landscape features of the land. The second presumably represent people living on the land.

But does it? It surely represents the boundaries of political authority that is imposed from the top, but does it say anything meaningful about the people themselves (besides the fact that in this place people tolerate the fact that they were forced to choose between Bob and Bill, and in that place they tolerate the fact that they were forced to choose between Joe and Jim)?

This new approach to mapping human activity challenges this notion. Briefly, the authors of the approach propose to draw boundaries based on "how far a buck travels": the extent of people's economic activity. The other approach is to try clustering the exchanges of money for products and services. I tend to buy a lot of my stuff locally. I also tend to order some things from a few online stores centered in certain locations. So, I tend to spend my money in the area where I live (with reduced probability of spending with the distance) and in a few "hubs".

Another approach is to try mapping communication: cell phone calls between places. Or employment: how far do people travel to work. Or personal interaction. Etc.

Using one of these approaches, US map becomes this:

Brockmann America

Or this:

MIT Senseable City - "The Connected States of America"

(You can read more in the report on the methodology of creating these maps.)

Notice how rarely the political boundaries correspond with the "real" boundaries of human interaction. (It seems that in most cases that they do, there is also a physical boundary like a river or a mountain range that obviously serves as real boundary for human interaction.)

On the other hand, the political map of Great Britain, a much older country, tends to correlate somewhat better with the country's political map:

British Phone Map

The map actually looks somewhat similar to the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms that existed before the Danish invasion in the 9th century CE:

I wonder if these patterns correlate with geographic features or just with traditional established economic centers.

But another, much stronger, point that immediately jumps to one's attention is that thinking of communities in terms of little bounded areas with well-established lines is silly. At best, the lines are very fuzzy. But it's also the case that the communication between people, especially in our times, is so fluid, dynamic and far-ranging that thinking of nations and communities in terms of boundaries seems unjustified.

Much better to think of them in terms of connections that unite people rather than borders that divide them:

Long Distance Map

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