History vs. Geography and Sourcemap.com

by Jim Clifford on March 12, 2012

The interactive map above, produced by Leo Bonanni, the CEO of Sourcemap.com, demonstrates the impressive power of geographical analysis in the early 21st century. The map shows the supply chains for a typical laptop computer and provides a fascinating insight into the complicated mix of natural resources and manufacturing labour needed. It raises questions about the environmental and social consequences of the computers that many of us interact with daily.

To what extent has geography emerged as a more powerful tool than history to shed light on the social and environmental consequences of today’s global economic and political systems? I don’t make it a habit to quote from the French philosopher Michel Foucault in my posts for ActiveHistory.ca, or for that matter in most of my academic writing. However, there is an idea from a lecture first given in 1967 that has stuck with me since I first came across it in during my early years in graduate school. The quote, taken from the 1986 English translation, argues that geography (space) increasingly surpassed history in the twentieth century: “The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis, and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past… The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed”. (Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 1986) The literary critic,  John Berger, provides another often quoted passage building the same idea and argues that it is now “space not time that hides consequences from us”:

It is scarcely any longer possible to tell a straight story sequentially unfolding in time.  And this is because we are too aware of what is continually traversing the storyline laterally…  Such awareness is the result of our constantly having to take into account the simultaneity and extension of events and possibilities.  There are so many reasons why this should be so: the range of modern means of communication: … the degree of personal political responsibility that must be accepted for events all over the world: the fact that the world has become indivisible: the unevenness of economic development within that world… Prophecy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection; it is space not time that hides consequences from us. (Soja, Postmodern Geographies, 22)

The popularity of posts by Karlee Sapoznik and the Alliance Against Modern Slavery on this website (which have been read by thousands of visitors) suggest an awareness among our readership of the political significance the geographical divisions in our world. When considering the common chocolate bar, it is hard to not agree with Berger that space, not history, hides the consequences of moderns slavery from consumers. Though it is equally true that history remains a powerful tool for explaining how and why the world developed in this way and our ability to contrast modern slavery with historical slavery remains very important. So I do not believe geography has surpassed historians, but with the ongoing process of globalization, there are many examples of geography’s growing importance. Moreover, a lot of historians, myself included, have become increasingly interested in the geographical aspects of the past.

My current research project attempts to look at the growth of the global commodity trade in the 19th century and to write a history of space and distance hiding consequences. I’ve been looking for a way to visualize this history. A week ago I learned about Sourcemap.com. I’ve begun working on a map to trace the raw materials that flowed into factories in East London during the nineteenth century and I plan to develop a series of maps that better show the vast expansion of global trade during between 1800 and 1914. I hope that blending geography and history with a powerful digital tool like Sourcemap.com will provide new insights into the development of the global economy and present the material in a uniquely dynamic and accessible format on the internet.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

K.S. March 12, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Very interesting, thought-provoking post Jim! Thank you! :)

Josh MacFadyen April 2, 2012 at 9:38 am

Nice work Jim. I’m curious if the webmap has the capacity to visualize value? Each point on the map could be larger/smaller depending on the share of total commodity value, its ecological footprint, employment value, etc.

Jim April 2, 2012 at 9:41 am

Hi Josh,

Yes, there are a few options to demonstrate value/volume/footprint. I’m going to work on addapting them to historical data soon.

Cheers,

Jim

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