What maps can teach us about our digital lives

An example of a Hennepin County property deed with a racial covenant. Courtesy: Mapping Prejudice.

The following is excerpted from Minneapolis author Chris Stedman’s new book “IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives.”

Six months after my first of numerous visits to the Borchert Map Library, I returned to the University of Minnesota’s campus — but this time I had another destination, just one building over. I stepped into the office of Kirsten Delegard, cofounder and codirector of the Mapping Prejudice Project, to meet with her and her team.

As we sat together, she explained that Mapping Prejudice is a community effort to map private contracts written by real estate developers called racial covenants — clauses in property deeds that barred nonwhite residents. Between 1910 and 1940 they spread like wildfire across Minneapolis and other American cities. During the New Deal, the federal government folded covenants into the new practice of redlining, which determined where the federal government would underwrite mortgages.

Covenants and redlining worked in tandem, Delegard explained. Covenants first segregated cities, including Minneapolis, concentrating black people into discrete neighborhoods with hard boundaries. Then redlining was imposed, enabling federal officials and local banks to withhold loans from people in areas deemed “hazardous,” devastating black-majority neighborhoods by draining them of capital.

While the federal government made racial covenants illegal in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act, their impact is still evident in the demographic makeup of Minneapolis neighborhoods today. By segregating cities like Minneapolis and ensuring resources were pooled in white-majority areas, redlining and racial covenants codified inequity. In an already colonized country, they allowed people to use maps to continue colonizing.

More of us are becoming aware of how people from privileged backgrounds often move into digital landscapes created by the disenfranchised and colonize them, consciously or otherwise, redrawing the map and renaming things in their own image. So often we (this absolutely includes me) do it without realizing, so ingrained are some of the practices. We borrow pieces of other people’s digital maps without even knowing where those pieces came from.

But the fact that this often happens without intention doesn’t make it okay. It makes it all the more pernicious. Like mapmakers and the people who have commissioned their work, social media creators and users often act in ways that feel colonial. From a growing recognition of how memes and slang are co-opted from marginalized groups (white people co-opting from people of color, nonqueer people co-opting from the LGBTQ community, and so on) to emerging conversations about the use of “digital blackface” — when nonblack social media users frequently or exclusively employ reaction GIFs of black people. Many of the practices and conventions we accept as artless or “neutral” in fact represent the interests of those in power.

And yet even as its conventions are stacked against the disenfranchised, the internet has created unprecedented opportunities for those organizing and asserting their existence.

Social media often helps communities that have historically been rendered invisible document their lives. As poet Alejandro de Acosta writes in “Latino/a America: A Geophilosophy for Wanderers” in An Atlas of Radical Cartography:

My wish (or slogan) is: that the marginalization of peoples
become something other than the source of reactive
identities and new nationalisms; or: that marginality be
increasingly revealed as a space, as an array of places,
for a particularly free kind of thinking. This revelation
requires a physical form for its emergence: a map. A philosophical
map, then, would chart the ephemeral events
of everyday life and invest them with new significance,
documenting experiences and increasing the possibility of
their communication.

That sounds a lot like social networks at their best, right? Marginalized communities are more able than ever before to map their lives online and document the things people in power wish to deny or erase. Platforms like Twitter have been critical to the growth of movements like Black Lives Matter. In the wake of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, people used Twitter to organize on the ground, share their locations with one another, and broadcast evidence of systemic injustice to the nation.

Similarly, hashtags like #DisabledAndCute and #BlackGirlMagic empower members of disenfranchised communities to do more than just document their trauma and pain — they are ways of mapping and sharing their joys with a world that is less inclined to tell those kinds of stories. If mapping is an act of power, social media at its best can enable communities that have been disempowered to take control of their own narratives and assert their agency.

Maps and the internet can allow us to recast the world, for good and for ill. In GeNtry!fication: Or the Scene of the Crime, Minneapolis poet Chaun Webster notes that in the 1930s, University of Washington sociology professor Calvin Schmid produced a report about Minneapolis and Saint Paul entitled “Social Saga of Two Cities” (I was able to find a digitized copy of it online, thanks to Mattke), which identified a portion of north Minneapolis as a “Negro slum.”

This designation forever changed how people outside the neighborhood thought of and related to it. At Mapping Prejudice, I mentioned Schmid’s map. In response, Delegard told me about a memory map of Minneapolis’s Near Northside that Clarence Miller created with neighborhood residents in the 1950s to document an area that had been razed by urban renewal.

While Schmid’s map was geographically accurate and the memory map was not, the latter captured things about the neighborhood that the former didn’t think of as important, as worth communicating. Rather than streets or the ages of buildings, Miller’s map conveyed relationships and social infrastructure. These are the qualities that bind a neighborhood together, that create meaning for a place that goes beyond property values to recognize the value of human connection.

Delegard pointed out that these two maps show a profound difference between how residents conceptualize space and how, for example, urban planners do. Urban planning, she said, requires boundaries and clear delineations. But residents are more interested in how a neighborhood feels than how it’s zoned. When community members are given the opportunity to create a map of the place they call home, they create something differently accurate.

We have a long way to go to address the inherent disparities of maps, both digital and cartographic platforms. “Cartography is about representation,” writes Penn State’s Alan M. MacEachren in the first chapter of How Maps Work, and social media is, too. And as Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips explains in The Future of Feeling, the lack of representation in the companies that developed our social technology has had a tremendous impact on how much different communities’ needs are met — or not.

Even as we consider the organizing power of social media, it’s important to continue asking how those in power are adapting their tactics to use it to their advantage. “The appearance of a more level playing field is not the fact of it, and everything that happens on the internet bounces and refracts,” writes Jia Tolentino in Trick Mirror. “At the same time that ideologies that lead toward equality and freedom have gained power through the internet’s open discourse, existing power structures have solidified.”

Sure enough, in Twitter and Tear Gas Zeynep Tufekci reflects on how her sense of optimism about the internet’s ability to empower dissidents shifted in a short period of time.

Within just a couple of years, she became far less optimistic about the internet’s potential because of the advantage that existing power structures have. “Whereas a social movement has to persuade people to act,” writes Tufekci, “a government or a powerful group defending the status quo only has to create enough confusion to paralyze people into inaction. The internet’s relatively chaotic nature, with too much information and weak gatekeepers, can asymmetrically empower governments by allowing them to develop new forms of censorship based not on blocking information, but on making available information unusable.” While grassroots movements must completely overhaul societal conventions in order to organize, those in power have been able to adapt more quickly.

But it’s more than just the advantages those in power already have. Part of the issue also lies in our inability to use the internet to organize well and sustain that organization.

Challenges exist in tandem with opportunities. Yes, the internet allows movements to develop quickly, Tufekci acknowledges, but it does so without requiring “prior building of formal or informal organizational and other collective capacities that could prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will face and give them the ability to respond to what comes next.”

Just as movements can grow swiftly online, as an untrained cartographer I can quickly make my own map of my city without input from anyone else. Both might bring fresh perspectives, and, as Tufekci says, there is real value there. But she offers an important caveat.

“The tedious work performed during the pre-internet era served other purposes as well,” she writes. “Perhaps most importantly, it acclimated people to the process of collective decision making and helped create the resilience all movements need to survive and thrive in the long term.”

In some respects we once publicly mapped our lives in more collaborative ways. By participating in a church, for example, I could stand up and share a message one Sunday, thus rendering myself and my concerns visible to the community. But belonging to that community would also require me to engage in all the negotiation and cooperation that comes with being a member.

If I wanted to map my life in the predigital age, most of the time I would be forced to work with other people in order to relay the self I wanted to share with the world. Now that process is more individual, and just as in movement organizing, perhaps something is lost when we aren’t required to go through the slow and sometimes sticky process of cooperating with others.

Of course, there are huge positives about this shift. The opportunities we now have to find and make these connections, says Tufekci, “are thoroughly intertwined with the online architectures of interaction and visibility and the design of online platforms.”

But, she cautions, it’s not the same for every person on every platform: “These factors — the affordances of digital spaces — shape who can find and see whom, and under what conditions; not all platforms create identical environments and opportunities for connection. Rather, online platforms have architectures just as our cities, roads, and buildings do, and those architectures affect how we navigate them.”

Still, digital networks can be more democratizing than those enabled by technologies that came before. Social media is the new town square, Tufekci says. And if connecting is essential to what makes us human — not just having access to the same information but also being together, being able to interact with and learn from one another — then the internet, while far from perfect, can certainly feel like a marked improvement over the less expansive networks of the past.

Ultimately, just as mapmaking has shaped the world, the digital maps we create — of ourselves and also of the networks we build between ourselves and others — will shape the future. Once upon a time the various societies of the world were much more disconnected, but gradually, thanks in part to maps — cartographic and digital — we have grown to see ourselves as part of something bigger.

Chris Stedman
Chris Stedman is the author of "IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives" (2020) and "Faitheist" (2012), and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Pitchfork, VICE, The LA Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Previously the founding director of the Yale Humanist Community and a fellow at Yale University, Chris also served as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University and currently teaches in the department of religion and philosophy at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. To learn more, visit http://chrisstedmanwriter.com or http://irlbook.com.