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The Accuracy Trap: The Values and Meaning of Algorithmic Mapping, from Mineral Extraction to Climate Change

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For specialists and non-specialists alike, maps are one of the central ways that the environment becomes visible and comprehensible. Since the 1960s, both the practice and the values of environmental mapping have been transformed by new algorithmic methods for turning point-by-point measurements into a smooth cartographic image, especially when visualising the invisible geographies of pollution, climate change, and underground resources. The resulting maps are now ubiquitous. This article argues that algorithmic methods – especially those created by a small group of French mining engineers and installed widely in software by the 1990s – shifted the values and meaning of environmental mapping away from a traditional concern with qualitative realism to a new emphasis on quantitative accuracy. This was a shift not just in the goals of mapping but in the kind of environment that maps ultimately construct. The prioritisation of accuracy should therefore not be seen as a straightforward improvement, as its associated values raise difficult conceptual problems, both historical and historiographic, about scale, expertise and the role of human judgement in the creation of environmental fact. Historicising the techniques and meanings of mapping is especially important as environmental historians consider new geospatial methods – including algorithmic methods – in their own work.
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Keywords: environmental visual culture; geostatistics; kriging; mapping; mineral extraction; spatial interpolation; visualisation

Appeared or available online: August 23, 2020

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