Deep Mapping the Media City

Even those fields that are more interested in the futures of our landscapes than in their pasts recognize the importance of developing appropriate tools for investigating and representing the sensory, physical presence of history. Because architects, landscape architects, and engineers sometimes find themselves building on unstable ground or on top of existing infrastructure—over railbeds, brown fields, or landfills, for example—they need to be aware of “complex site dynamics.”[1] Landscape architects Stephanie Carlisle and Nicholas Pavzner propose that their fellow designers need new tools, beyond the traditional plans and perspectives, that allow them to better deal with deep structures and dynamic forces. To work with “deep urbanism,” which regards the city as a “complex system composed of interconnected layers of social and biogeochemical processes,” designers need the “deep section.” The deep section is a representational tool that “brings infrastructure . . . to the forefront, expanding our understanding of the pre-conditions of projects and the boundaries of [designers’ potential] interventions.” By presenting multiple infrastructures simultaneously, the deep section allows designers to explore them in relation to one another and to imagine how our future systems could correspond to the paths laid out by their predecessors.

Sequential Sections. From Filter/Collector: Anchoring the Edge in Mumbai’s Maidans. Image by Nicholas Pevzner. Originally published in Scenario Journal.

Figure 9. Sequential Sections. From Filter/Collector: Anchoring the Edge in Mumbai’s Maidans. Image by Nicholas Pevzner. Originally published in Scenario Journal.

Of course there are myriad artists and media makers and writers—Dziga Vertov, Walter Benjamin, Constant Nieuwenhuys and the Situationists, Alighiero Boetti, Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat, Rebecca Solnit, Joyce Kozloff, and Julie Mehretu among them—who discerned a similar need for new tools and strategies to represent modern spaces, and the modern city in particular. The “literary montage” form of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and the reader’s experience in engaging with it, are regarded as “city-like”; its textual passages resemble, in their pace and structure, the passages of urban exhibition halls, arcades, and train stations.[2] Cartographers and geographers, too, have experimented with various critical, counter-, and radical cartographic approaches, including indigenous mapping, sensory mapping, and the collaborative development of OpenStreetMap, an open-source alternative to Google Earth.[3] These approaches aim to illuminate the unavoidably subjective and political aspects of mapping and to provide alternatives to hegemonic, authoritative—and often naturalized and reified—approaches to cartography.

Today’s urban form is perhaps best expressed not through a two-dimensional map but via the remixed iPod playlist, the database documentary, and a live feed of data accessible via the smartphone. Archaeologists have also traditionally been early adopters and developers of new technologies, from photographs to remote sensing, for surveying and annotating their fields of study. Favro and Johanson are among those studying the ancient past who are experimenting with new technologies.[4] They’re interested in the “symbiotic exchange” between “urban form” and “kinetic ceremonies,” particularly the funeral procession, in ancient Rome; in short, they wonder how the city functions as an infrastructure for such ceremonial, and highly mediated, events. They regard digital modeling as particularly well suited to getting at all those ineffable dimensions of the city—“its sights, movement, sounds, and smells,” all of which are integral dimensions to the politics of pageantry, and broader practices of governmentality—that are hard to capture in a sketch, drawing, or physical model:[5]

Digital technologies have made possible the fashioning of more dynamic and flexible depictions of ancient spaces . . . , all readily linked to metadata that documents the level of accuracy of restored components. . . . A rich range of sensorial stimuli can be added to kinetic viewing to shape more robust recreations of the original environmental experience. Depictions of actual times of day, year, and century reaffirm the essential temporal aspects. . . . Various experimental scenarios can be presented to ascertain the impact of alternative reconstructions, climatic conditions, and hypothetically distributed ephemera.

But because, they say, archaeologists are generally averse to speculation, it’s important to offer context for these experimental and hypothetical dimensions of the model. “Every sensorial layer requires a method of citation and analysis, and a large measure of scholarly caution. How can it be proved that ancients experienced light in the same way as moderns? How does one add scholarly rigor to the simulation of smell or sound?”[6]

Schematic view of the Roman Forum. Model copyright and courtesy of the Regents of the University of California, Christopher Johanson, and the Experiential Technologies Center [ETC], UCLA.

Figure 10. Schematic view of the Roman Forum. Model copyright and courtesy of the Regents of the University of California, Christopher Johanson, and the Experiential Technologies Center [ETC], UCLA.

What kind of map or model can accommodate this integration of spatial and temporal and sensory dynamics, acknowledge that various rendered elements reflect varying degrees of certainty (and that some are entirely speculative) — and make clear that the urban substrate in which all those forces converge was itself shaped through a long period of evolution?[7] What kind of map can show networks entangled with networks, confirming Kittler’s observation that “a city is not a flattenable graph”?

For mapping deep time, maybe we need a deep map. The deep map, as archaeologists Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks explain, “attempts to record and represent the grain and patina of place through juxtapositions and interpenetrations of the historical and the contemporary, the political and the poetic, the discursive and the sensual; the conflation of oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, natural history and everything you might ever want to say about a place.”[8] Though Pearson’s and Shanks’s list of ingredients is rather literary, we can also layer in GIS and empirical data and satellite images, thus juxtaposing qualitative and quantitative conceptions of space, or balancing out GIS’s seeming precision with the relative fuzziness of humanistic data.[9] Fellow archaeologist Cliff McLucas adds that deep maps are characterized not only by their layering of different media or registers but also by their “engagement of both the insider and outsider,” “the official and the unofficial”—much like the Subjective Cartographies project we looked at earlier.[10] Deep maps don’t claim to be authoritative or objective; to the contrary, they’re intentionally “fragile and temporary”—always evolving and evading stable representation, just like our media and the cities they inhabit and shape.

“Nesting.” From Denis Wood, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, 2nd ed. (Siglio, 2013).

Figure 11. “Nesting.” From Denis Wood, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, 2nd ed. (Siglio, 2013).

Users’ engagement with a deep map of the media city can be similarly dynamic; users can open or close, and turn on or off, different layers to explore various forces and networks in relation to one another. We can see this functionality in my colleague Brian McGrath’s Manhattan Timeformations,[11] an interactive map of dynamic urban systems, which was rather pathbreaking when it was launched in 2000. We can toggle on and off layers for highways, subways, rails, monuments and parks, and landfill, for instance, and filter by historic period. The map offers additional interactive features that allow us to explore our cities’ growth and infrastructural development from multiple vantage points—as if we were looking at Manhattan from Brooklyn or from an approach on the Staten Island Ferry. These features aren’t merely gratuitous acrobatics, similar to those we find in most nausea-inducing Prezi presentations; instead, they provide methodological and epistemological value, affording us an opportunity to see historical and spatial patterns in development and to identify pockets of exclusion.

Users of deep, interactive maps can also zoom in to examine cities and their infrastructures at various scales and to compare them in different geographic regions. Such comparisons can help to disabuse us of the classic deterministic view of infrastructure, which Graham and Marvin describe in Splintering Urbanism as the assumption that new networked systems create new urban forms in their image.[12] Zooming in and out also reveals that infrastructures operate, and interlink, at different scales, “from the body to the globe.”[13] The interlinking or entanglement of infrastructures and temporalities is another key dimension that a deep map can reveal.[14] What we see in the following, however, is a very simple map—by map theorist and experimental cartographer Denis Wood—that also conveys this rather messy overlapping of scales: newspaper delivery zones, police zones, garbage pickup zones, planning zones, state election districts, school zones.

Maps can also help us identify patterns of concentration, segmentation, or uneven distribution of (or access to) infrastructures. Geographer Karen Bakker argues, contra Graham and Marvin, that global infrastructures aren’t “splintering” but are inherently “splintered”; islands of access within seas of exclusion are the norm in many parts of the developing (and even developed) world, where governments don’t provide universal access to public services.[15] The NYTE worked with MIT’s Senseable City Lab to visualize telecom activity, and we can see here the global flows and fallows.

“Mailman.” From Denis Wood, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, 2nd ed. (Siglio, 2013).

Figure 12. “Mailman.” From Denis Wood, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, 2nd ed. (Siglio, 2013).

Rahul Mehrota, describing contemporary Indian cities, distinguishes between the “Static City,” a place of formal, permanent, and often monumental structures of concrete, steel, and brick, and the “Kinetic City,” a place of informal, dynamic, incremental, and temporary development, where much is built from recycled materials: scrap metal, waste wood, plastic sheets, reclaimed wires and cables.[16] Bakker suggests that we might see the construction of makeshift, jury-rigged, or pirated structures, or the use of biopower—of people themselves as links in a disconnected network—as a form of “intense, often undocumented innovation” (and as evidence of political struggle).[17] The deep map of these two intertwined cities—the static and kinetic—could allow us to represent how formal, state-implemented or commercial infrastructures—mapped via official GIS data—engage with informal infrastructures, which we might map via oral testimony and ethnographic photography and video. There is much to be gained by putting these two cartographic techniques and subjects in relation to one another. For instance, the Kinetic City, Mehrota says, is typically that which is “excluded from the spaces of global flows,” but it has the potential to force the Static City to “re-engage itself,” to reconsider its politics, and perhaps to wonder what it might learn from its Kinetic counterpart.[18]

NYTE “Globe Encounters.” Courtesy the MIT Senseable City Lab.

Figure 13. NYTE “Globe Encounters.” Courtesy the MIT Senseable City Lab.

Another innovative mapping project sought to make sense of jury-rigged biotechnical infrastructures and living patterns in Hong Kong, described as “a city without ground.” “This is true,” the map makers write, “both physically ([because it’s] built on steep slopes, the city has no ground plane) and culturally ([in that] there is no concept of ground). Density obliterates figure-ground in the city.”[19] Adam Frampton, Jonathan Solomon, and Clara Wong look at the layered topography of Hong Kong, known for its entangled—and partly unplanned—systems of walkways, tunnels, ramps, and passageways. The assemblage, the authors write, is the “result of a combination of top-down planning and bottom-up solutions, a unique collaboration between pragmatic thinking and comprehensive master-planning.”

Cities without Ground shows many of the 3-D circulation routes that inhabitants have created through the city. As the authors explain, these maps show that “this continuous network, and the microclimates of temperature, humidity, noise and smell which differentiate it, constitute an entirely new form of urban spatial hierarchy. The relation between shopping malls and air temperature, for instance, suggests architectural implications in circulation—differentiating spaces where pedestrians eagerly flow or make efforts to avoid, where people stop and linger or where smokers gather.”

Cities without Ground spread depicting transit routes determined by temperature. Image by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon, and Clara Wong.

Figure 14. Cities without Ground spread depicting transit routes determined by temperature. Image by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon, and Clara Wong.

One of the Cities without Ground maps depicts West Kowloon—and just a few months after the book’s publication was the twentieth anniversary of an important event in this area: the demolition of Kowloon Walled City, a notorious hyperdense and largely ungoverned settlement. Such informal conditions typically can’t be discerned via GPS or official maps. Informal infrastructures are uncovered instead through on-the-ground fieldwork, interviews, participant observation, and other qualitative methods we’d typically apply in creating a deep map. We see this in the Financing Small Cities initiative, which trained researchers to fan out into the town of Srirangapatna, India, to gather data on residents’ access to infrastructure. Their maps—which you can see online (http://financingcities.ifmr.co.in/blog/2012/12/10/data-analytics/), are rather simple data visualizations, but the stories and observations the team gathered in the field could’ve been organized into a deep map, again like the Subjective Cartography project.

Cities without Ground spread depicting West Kowloon. Image by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon, and Clara Wong.

Figure 15. Cities without Ground spread depicting West Kowloon. Image by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon, and Clara Wong.

Here the team had to “go to the source” and ask the residents themselves about their access to resources. As Graham reminds us, looking at an “official” network map—from a telecom or publishing company, for instance—can tell us only so much about individuals’ access along routes of a network; “one can be physically on top of an access point to an infrastructure network whilst, at the same time, being ‘infinitely’ excluded from it”—just as one can live right beside an interstate, while the closest on- and off-ramps are miles away.[20] Lisa Parks, whose pioneering work focuses on both formal and informal satellite infrastructures, advocates that, in using official network or GIS-based maps, we have to “trust but verify.”[21] Some maps, she acknowledges, are intentionally obscure, particularly when their creators have reason to worry about their networks’ security.[22] Such verification strategies include potholing, which involves digging small holes to check for underground utilities, and ground truthing, or gathering data in the field to corroborate or challenge remotely sensed or government- or corporate-issued data. That’s how Michael Chen and Justin Snider’s cell phone infrastructure map, which we saw earlier, was generated—by collecting official data, then walking the streets, confirming and documenting that cell phone antennae were where the various government agencies and corporations said they were.[23]

Mapping both static and kinetic infrastructures can reveal how they evolve in tandem, sometimes overlapping, sometimes diverging; how they emerge via top-down, state-sponsored or organic, resident-driven efforts; and how these different systems are often divided by class or geography. Mehrota suggests that the copresence of diverse networks that morph over time inspires us to think of the city not as a “grand vision” but as a “grant adjustment.” Mapping these official and informal systems can help to reveal the “elastic urban condition,” allowing comparison of networks and cities over time, perhaps all the way back into deep time. The timeline—which offers the ability to map urban and technological evolution across time—is another great advantage of interactive mapping, and deep mapping only enhances our understanding of urban and technological temporality by revealing the presence of multiple histories.

In closing, I want to tour briefly through just a few more in-progress (or possibly stalled) interactive mapping projects that have the potential either to add to our set of cartographic methodological tools or to demonstrate the challenges (if not impossibility) of translating nuanced understandings of cultural history into digital cartographic form. First, there’s Pleiades,[24] a “community-built gazeteer” and map of ancient places, which currently includes some plotted points—including markers, on ancient roadways—that pertain to the “deep time” of the mediated city. Then there’s Hypercities,[25] a project that hypothetically allows for an exploration of layered temporalities but whose design challenges—including particularly its organization into nonintuitive “collections,” and the lack of unique URLs for plotted data, which prevents users from linking back to individual items posted to the map—significantly limit its functionality. Nicole Starosielski has subverted many cartographic conventions in developing a map of undersea cables to accompany her forthcoming book on the topic. She and designer Eric Loyer have been custom designing a platform that allows users to explore the map though themes or stories, by place, or via the networks traced on the map.

Figure 16. Undersea cable map. From TeleGeography, http://www.submarinecablemap.com/.

Figure 16. Undersea cable map. From TeleGeography, http://www.submarinecablemap.com/.

And since 2010, the graduate students in Urban Media Archaeology studio have been creating maps of historical urban media networks using the Urban Research Toolkit (URT), a (now “hibernating”) mapping platform that my colleagues in Parsons the New School for Design created in collaboration with me—partly in response to the methodological needs of my class. URT was built entirely using open-source technology and was meant to allow users to geolocate archival or self-generated data in myriad formats, and to contextualize that data within an argument or story. Over the four years I taught the class, students have mapped the geography of newspaper printing and delivery; the migration of media company headquarters throughout Manhattan from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries; the disappearance of movie theaters in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; carrier pigeon geographic history; the entwined histories of department stores and radio stations; the history of zines and small-publishing distribution in the East Village of the 1970s; the geography of telephone switching stations; the rise and fall of independent bookstores; and numerous other fascinating histories.

fig17a
fig17b
fig17c

Figure 17. Student projects from my Urban Media Archaeology graduate studio.

Our platform was not without its limitations, and our process was not without its frustrations. But the very messiness of the mapping practice allowed our students to see inside the software development process and to appreciate the friction between various temporalities: they were confronted with the challenge of mapping nonlinear events via an interactive timeline; the challenge of handling fuzzy dates via a data model that wanted specific days and times; and the challenge of mapping their own work schedules onto those of our software developers. And over the years, as students’ stories accumulated on the map, we discovered points of intersection between those stories. Those intersections often allowed for temporal entanglements to reveal themselves—for the “deep time” of the media city to emerge.

Although all of these maps are illuminating and innovative in their own ways, some would have to be adapted to allow for the mapping of media places, networks, events. Some are built on databases nicely designed to support the methodologies and epistemologies of humanities and social scientific research, but they often leave some to be desired in terms of aesthetics. Some, conversely, are rather tightly controlled gems of interaction and graphic design that, unfortunately, either wouldn’t scale or allow for easy replication, or that wouldn’t easily accommodate the messiness of a deep map, with its lack of authorial control and incorporation of myriad voices and media formats. Of course we’ve examined mostly print-based and digital projects—but that’s only because it’s hard to experience a soundwalk, or handle material cartographic objects, via a book. It’s important to remember that our maps can take any format that suits our methods and subjects and audiences. We can draw bits of insight from each of these projects and piece together our own deep mapping strategies and platforms that fit the particularities of our own urban media interests.

These examples demonstrate the value of mapping as a method and of thinking of the map itself as a medium to which we have to apply our critical faculties. Infrastructure, in its material and spatial dimensions, lends itself particularly well to mapping. And when we add a historical dimension to the study of media infrastructure, the deep map is particularly well suited to illuminating the complex materialities—political economic, technological, social, biological—and entangled temporalities of infrastructure. A deep map of the media city can help to reveal that urban mediation—even the “sentient city”—emerged well before Gibson’s Singapore or even Benjamin’s Paris; its origins are instead rooted in deep time—a time we can inhabit on a deep map.


  1. Stephanie Carlisle and Nicholas Pavzner, “The Performative Ground: Rediscovering the Deep Section,” Landscape Urbanism (Spring 2012), http://scenariojournal.com/article/the-performative-ground/.
  2. Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 1997).
  3. See Jeremy W. Crampton and John Krygier, “An Introduction to Critical Cartography,” ACME: An International e-Journal for Critical Geographies 4, no. 1 (2006): 11–33; John Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World (New York: Routledge, 2004); Nancy Peluso, “Whose Woods Are These? Counter-Mapping Forest Territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia,” Antipode 4, no. 27 (1995): 383–406; David Pinder, “Subverting Cartography: The Situationists and Maps of the City,” Environment and Planning A 28 (1996): 405–27; Bill Rankin, “Radical Cartography,” http://www.radicalcartography.net/; Denis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 1992). We explore many of these critical cartographic approaches, as well as many examples of cartographic art, in my Urban Media Archaeology graduate studio course, which I’ve taught at the New School since 2010.
  4. See their RomeLab at the UCLA Experiential Technologies Center: http://etc.ucla.edu/research/projects/romelab/.
  5. Favro and Johanson, “Death in Motion,” 15.
  6. Ibid., 16.
  7. See Michele Tucci and Alberto Giordano, “Positional Accuracy, Positional Uncertainty, and Feature Change Detection in Historical Maps,” Computers, Environment, and Urban Analysis 35, no. 6 (2011): 452–563.
  8. Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology (New York: Routledge, 2001), 64–65. See also Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014), and David Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, eds., Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming).
  9. See David J. Bodenhamer, “The Potential of the Spatial Humanities,” in The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, ed. David Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, 14–30 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).
  10. Cliff McLucas, “Deep Mapping,” http://metamedia.stanford.edu/~mshanks/projects/deep-mapping.html.
  11. http://www.skyscraper.org/timeformations/intro.html.
  12. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, eds., Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities, and the Urban Condition (New York: Routledge, 2001), 21.
  13. Ibid., 8.
  14. As Graham notes, “only very rarely do single infrastructure networks develop in isolation from changes in others. By far the most common situation is where urban landscapes and processes become remodeled and reconstituted based on their complex articulations with a variety of superimposed transport, communications, energy and water infrastructures. . . . What is the Internet without electricity? Or the contemporary highway without the mobile phone?” Stephen Graham, “Introduction: Cities and Infrastructure Networks,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 1 (2000): 114.
  15. Karen Bakker, “Splintered Urbanisms: Water, Urban Infrastructure, and the Modern Social Imaginary,” in Urban Constellations, ed. Matthew Gandy (Berlin: GmbH, 2011), 62–64.
  16. Rahul Mehrotra, “Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities: The Emergent Urbanism of Mumbai,” in Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age, ed. Andreas Huyssen, 205–18 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008).
  17. Bakker, “Splintered Urbanisms,” 64; AbdouMaliq Simone, “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg,” Public Culture 16, no. 3 (2004): 407–29.
  18. Mehrota, “Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities,” 207, 216.
  19. Cities without Ground,http://www.citieswithoutground.com/.
  20. Stephen Graham, “Introduction: Cities and Infrastructure Networks,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 1 (2000): 116.
  21. Lisa Parks, Signal Traffic Workshop, University of California at Santa Barbara, June 2, 2011.
  22. Nicholas Jackson, “15 High-Profile Sites That Google Doesn’t Want You to See,” The Atlantic Tech (June 21, 2011), http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/06/15-high-profile-sites-that-google-doesnt-want-you-to-see/240766/.
  23. Then again, some places have no network maps to check our field-derived data against. Marko Peljhan has constructed telecommunication infrastructures in the Arctic, a region with “little infrastructure beyond human networks”; thus oral history has become a central methodology in constructing both his network and the map of it.
  24. http://pleiades.stoa.org/home.
  25. http://www.hypercities.com/.