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vestigate links between contaminated drinking water and cancer
incidence. Some devotees of the technology say that it s more
than just a useful tool. They call it a new language, one that allows
us to understand, and improve, our planet.
The Power of Pictures
The most vocal advocate of the bene ts of GIS is also the world s
leading seller of GIS software and services: Jack Dangermond,
founder and coöwner of a Redlands, CA, company called the
Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). (Its motto:
"Better decisions through modeling and mapping our world.")
Every summer, Dangermond presides over the ESRI User Con-
ference, an international geography jamboree that brings to-
gether thousands of digital mapmakers from around the world.
ESRI publishes some of the nest work displayed at the confer-
ence in a glossy "map book," released annually. In recent years,
these books have borne such high-minded titles as Sustaining
Our World and Ser ving Our World.
This grandiose vision comes from Dangermond himself. "Our
science is making a better world for human existence and eco-
nomic development and arguably could be something that coun-
terbalances everything negative about globalization," he says.
The power of GIS, Dangermond argues, is that it lets us wit-
ness the world, from deforestation in the Amazon to crime in
local neighborhoods. And having seen what s happening, we
can imagine changing it. GIS, Danger mond believes, "will al-
low us to create a better future."
According to many, digital mapmakers have had an idealistic
streak from the beginning. The most comprehensive volume on
GIS, The History of Geographic Information Systems, opens
with an essay by landscape architect Ian McHarg, who advocated
"transparent-overlay maps" in the 1960s as a way for planners to
see more clearly the aspects of nature---forests, wildlife, and
marshes---that new roads and buildings would obliterate.
Those physical overlay maps inspired a generation of environ-
mentalists, including Dangermond, who studied landscape ar-
chitecture at Har vard University. The idea of creating maps from
layers of data became the heart of GIS, and it s the secret of its
power. Using software like Danger mond s, people could com-
bine census information, satellite photos, and many other types of
data to reveal relationships that were never obvious before.
At rst glance, the value of GIS seems self-evident. It s hard to
imagine a more innocent and enlightening technology than a
map. Maps reveal the tr uth about our world, and the truth, as the
saying goes, will set us free. Or will it?
Nazis, Soviets, and Software
I slide a copy of The History of Geographic Information Systems
across the table toward historian John Cloud, and he recoils as if
it were something toxic. "The enemy," he mutters with a twisted
smile, only partly joking.
Cloud considers this book a "cover story," a misleading his-
tory that gives university-based scientists more credit for GIS
than they deser ve. The real roots of digital mapping, he says,
reach back to the Cold War and to the U.S. Defense Depart-
ment s secret campaign to assemble accurate maps of nuclear
targets in the Soviet Union.
Before taking his current job as a historian for the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Cloud spent more
than a decade assembling an alternative genealogy of GIS, show-
ing military planners, not idealistic landscape architects, to be its
fathers. In the 1950s, the Defense Department recruited scien-
tists to determine the exact distances between the earth s conti-
nents---essential for aiming intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Later, Pentagon o cials sent the rst remote-sensing satellites
aloft to photograph "denied territories" inside the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s, the Pentagon converted those images into digital
data, and in the 1980s, the U.S. Air Force launched the Global
Positioning System, the essential tool for today s mapmakers.
These military projects were the pillars on which geographic
infor mation systems were built, Cloud says. In scale and sophis-
tication, they dwarfed anything accomplished in the civilian
world at that time. And the world imagined in these maps was
not one of environmental sustainability but one of nuclear war.
As for Ian McHarg s transparent-overlay maps, intended to
help preser ve nature and facilitate more-livable cities---well, that,
too, is a nice-sounding cover story, says Cloud. There were other
forer unners of layered digital maps, he says, including some that
were used for less uplifting purposes than McHarg s.
Searching through archives and old cartography publications,
Cloud found several overlay maps from the 1930s and 1940s.
They were, he says, "the most complex and accomplished uses of
overlays yet found." One set, prepared by federal o cials during
the New Deal, depicted American cities and showed, with di er-
ent translucent layers, data about problems such as high concen-
trations of decrepit buildings. Later maps, concealed for many
years from public view, carried fateful red lines that enclosed
blocks occupied mainly "by any distinct racial, national, or in-
come group that would be considered an undesirable element if
introduced into other parts of the city," in the words of a 1936
document cited by Cloud. Thus was born the term "redlining"
(say, charging residents of targeted areas more for loans or insur-
ance). Yet Cloud has found no evidence that others adopted these
innovative mapmaking techniques and applied them more
widely. Apparently, they were used and then abandoned.
While inter viewing Lawrence Ayers, former deputy director
of the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency, Cloud learned of another
set of overlay maps that may have fallen on more-fertile ground.
The maps were created by the German military during World
War II and captured by American forces near the end of the war.
They were composed of transparent sheets---sometimes 20 or
more---showing such things as vegetation, soil, and road sur-
faces. According to Ayers, the Defense Department s own map-
makers quickly saw the value of this technique and adopted it
themselves, rst applying it to physical maps, then to digital sets
of data. "The concept of the overlay is what the software writers
picked up and used to take advantage of digital technology," says
Ayers. "It goes back to the Germans."
Ayers and Cloud make an odd pair of allies. But the two of
them---one a retired defense o cial and corporate executive, the
other a sandal-wearing former academic and environmental ac-
tivist---agree the Defense Department laid the foundations for
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