On Geography and Storytelling in South Africa

The man had an earthy quality about him: I could tell he came from that mythical land, there beyond the Kei River; the fabled former Transkei. He spoke in a strange, professorial manner, in total agreement with his grandfatherly demeanor: His voice was thick and smooth like plain yogurt; he moved his compact body, with the quiet dignity of a school caretaker; his eyes shone with curiosity and intelligence. I shook his rough, dry hands and looked into his small grandfatherly eyes, and at once, I sensed that this man had wild tales to share.

The tree of authoritative knowledge

It was a Monday afternoon, the sky was clear and the African sun was flexing its vibrant color and brilliant power. Sweating profusely, I licked my lips for the hundredth time and smiled awkwardly at my client, who had been patiently waiting for me to process his request. My PC took a little too long to load: Such is life in the South, for when there is much to be done, the system is always down!

While we waited, I thought about the idea of precision, accuracy and certainty: the idea of certainty was a particularly weird one for me; For I have learnt that certainty in life is a ridiculous notion; it is the stuff of dreams, the sound of silence. Real life by definition, is complex and uncertain….

Then, the man’s voice filled the room and it woke me from my daydream. He started carefully tracing the contours of his lived experiences, methodical and purposeful in his storytelling. Carefully timing his delivery. Weaving intricate subplots together with great ease. I liked the way he sprinkled his tales with dry humor. I liked how he was always the lone survivor in those stories: he had survived the brutal and violent taxi wars in Mthatha; he had witnessed the wide-spread corruption that had engulfed his homeland and he had never been tainted by the political violence that had mowed down some of his contemporaries….and he had also survived witchcraft. Yes, of course, witchcraft had to be factored in, as a vital if not crucial ingredient, in his grand narrative: men could commit heinous crimes and never go to jail because of witchcraft; people died mysteriously because of witchcraft; and yes, many had amassed wealth because, you guessed it, witchcraft!  Witchcraft could explain away the inexplicable: It made the absurdity of existence more bearable.

He stopped speaking only when I was able to visualize his land on the computer screen. He asked, with childlike curiosity, if we could readjust the size of his land and print the output as a map. I was taken aback by this request, and after further inquiry I was able to determine that the man, had concocted a particularly clever plan; he would use this map to settle a dispute with his neighbor, and thus take a sizeable chunk of the neighbor’s land. Of course I reminded him that I did not have the power or authority to do such a thing. But long after he had left, the request left an impression on me.

In the eyes of my client, I could control his fate with a simple set of queries: He was certain, that the map could not lie, it was the ultimate symbol of truth; its authority was unquestionable.  That day my mind was filled with so many questions about my field….

I usually play “background” music in my office, just to set a relaxed and welcoming mood. Now, interestingly enough, while typing this post, the song “Heaven for the sinner” by Erykah Badu and Bonobo was playing in the background: This is my favorite line on that lovely tune – “we don’t need no truth, got plenty/ now it grows on trees”. Yep. That pretty much sums up my own experiences as a social media fanatic, budding storyteller and geographer.

#awkward

About a month later, one Sunday afternoon, I had a delightful conversation with a friend of mine, about the influence and downsides of twitter. We were addicts, seriously considering deleting our accounts, as we both recognized the potential snags of having our most useless and mundane thoughts on the timeline. I remember telling my mate that twitter is elitist: Those who come from wealthy families tend to flex their good fortunes on the timeline and in some curious instances, they are hated, praised and rewarded for it. Those who are fortunate enough to attend the best Universities in the country, include that very juicy fact in their “bios”, perhaps in an attempt to bolster their social capital. Social capital is the true currency of social media networks. And as two struggling twitter users, we often felt that we did not truly belong in such a competitive ecosystem. For me, it became painfully clear, that at best, twitter was a distraction.

The one interesting aspect of our conversation, centered on the apparent interplay and contradictions between our online personas and our real world experiences. It became increasingly clear that our posts could have some very real and unintended consequences: The informal relationships and networks we have built online are a constant reminder that in the digital realm, there is the ceaseless reworking of reality.

To be sure, over the years, I have “met” many wonderful and interesting people online; but always from a safe distance. Now though, the character and tone of those interactions has changed dramatically. They are no longer fun and meaningless: There is a deep sense of hostility, mingled with expectation and paranoia. Moreover, strangers can judge and troll you online; people can take unflattering photographs of you at the local pub and you will forever be immortalized, as a living meme on the timeline. I have always felt that social media was more of a performance; filled with theatrics and little substance. As a result, when the fourth wall is broken, and the ephemeral worlds of digital space crystallize and puncture the fabric of everyday life, awkward things start happening. You might lose your job or a friend over some meaningless twitter posts!

I recognize that social media opens up new social streams, where professionals, experts and artists can express and explore novel ideas; technology can stimulate creativity and foster collaboration. Indeed, I feel that my timeline has exposed me to new ways of being and thinking: I learnt about blogging, Buddhism, feminism and the power of poetry on twitter. However, I loved and despised people I didn’t even know, because of their posts, so sure at the time, that their performances and our interactions were very real, or at the very least, they were grounded in reality. In time I would learn that social media networks are not anchored in place: the user can change sides or lie or choose to disable his or her location and at once, he/she is transformed into an invisible force of anarchy; like some ghost screaming absurdities in the tundra forest. It is the apparent gap between truth and misinformation that makes leveraging social media for GI so difficult. Yet, we are at a crossroads, where GI professionals are expected to leverage twitter feeds and Facebook posts for spatial analysis. We are left to wonder if  social media data can actually be reliable data source: Could we, for example, use this data to predict, track, monitor and map spontaneous social events, such as the #FeesMustFall protests? And what about the legal and ethical problems associated with mass surveillance? As a geographer and storyteller I am deeply fascinated by the apparent links between social media, knowledge politics, storytelling and culture, in a post apartheid South Africa.

Truth and trust

In order to understand how social media and technology have impacted on knowledge production, privacy, ownership and representation in a South African context, we need to start asking the following questions: How has the South African legal framework changed in order to regulate these new technological and societal developments ? Are visual artists, photographers, writers, promoters, musicians, bloggers and the like, who often share and sell their products online, adequately protected under our current legal ecosystem? Are we doing enough to combat piracy ? Should we consider piracy a normal and integral part of the information age ? Who really benefits from the sharing economy ?

Moreover, we need to recognize the deep rooted connections between neoliberal capitalism and digital communications, as typified by the term “info-liberalism”. Indeed, I have learnt that sharing in the context of social media, is used as mechanism for generating capital through user-participation (Lockayne, 2016); i.e “paid twitter”.

Let us also consider the issue of trust in the digital space. Reviews and ratings can be conceptualized as mechanisms for fostering trust within online communities. Algorithms “choose” who is trustworthy based on these mechanisms. So what mechanisms are used to judge the “dependability” of experts and professionals, particularly those who are tasked with leveraging sensitive information? Perhaps critical GIS can help us answer, or at least make sense of some of these pertinent questions.

I am fascinated by the power of spatial technology: I understand the ethics, assumptions, processes and procedures but the internal circuitry is still a mystery to me. As a result, I have found a natural home in the “struggle literature” of critical GIS. I am attracted to critical GIS because it has a rich and varied history of unraveling the social, political and epistemological implications of GIS. As Elwood (2006) rightly notes, the reactions to these critiques have, for the most part, helped to shape the technological, political and intellectual practices of GI science (For a more thorough and in-depth history and analysis of critical GIS, I strongly suggest that you read “Trouble in the heartland: GIS and its critics in the 1990s” by Nadine Schuurman). Like most critical geographers, I am mindful of the fact that GIS is an awesome mediator of spatial knowledge, social and political power and intellectual practice in geography (Elwood, 2006). Thus, I feel that in our daily practice as practitioners, truthmakers and storytellers, we have to tread carefull

Deconstructing the cyborg

We are living in a world where drones are used to deliver medical supplies to Rwandan clinics and hospitals; where even the sharing economy has changed the nature and meaning of work and play.

Moreover, big private companies have the ability to measure consumer sentiments using throwaway tweets (Mostafa, 2013); artists and producers can tailor their products and marketing strategies, depending on online trends; political leaders can actively communicate with citizens on issues of national importance; activists can report instances of corruption at all levels of government and document cases of police brutality in real-time.

Furthermore, technology can inform policy and foster civil dissent: witness the timely and grand “he will not divide us” campaign by Shai Labeouf; the #FeesMustFall movement or even, the rich body of literature, on data art techniques, collaborative mapping solutions, traditional knowledge systems and counter mapping initiatives by local/ traditional communities.

In the information age, distance is also rendered irrelevant: witness the rise of online rappers, online boutiques, data artists, amateur photographers, neo-geographers, digital humanitarians and citizen scientists; this is the dawn of the sharing economy, where war is entertainment and work becomes play.

I also feel that authoritative knowledge systems should also accommodate the informal sector; we should foster the sharing of different stories and explore different ways of knowing. It is a well known fact that, in government databases we might find that informal businesses, often associated with townships and informal settlements, are rendered invisible: thousands of backyard spazashops; street side barbershops; taverns and places of worship are non-existent. I imagine we could address these issues – around power, data quality, authority and representation- by instituting a nation wide public participatory knowledge system, where citizens can challenge, flag and modify authoritative spatial knowledge. For instance, let’s say the attributes and spatial features (size, boundaries, location and name) of a certain villages or informal settlements or places of interest can be flagged if they are outdated, incorrect or inaccurate. Perhaps this system might also be used to educate the public about geospatial data; increase the quality and interoperability of local datasets; and help foster a conducive environment for knowledge production and data sharing.

Hopefully, once the practices of officials and truthmakers are made public, they can be openly challenged and critiqued to bolster participation, data quality and trust: high performing individuals are rewarded on merit and the spatial data changes continuously, depending on the rating system. The map becomes a living document, with multiple authors and stakeholders. The plan sounds simple enough, but I have my doubts: First of all, such participatory systems are highly dependent on the internal culture of organizations; also it is highly unlikely that civil servants would be willing to take part in such an intrusive exercise; and furthermore, I am not entirely sure that ordinary South Africans would rally behind such an initiative.

Concluding Remarks

In this era of fake news, Trumpism, virtual reality, hashtags and big data, questions around mass surveillance, state power and knowledge politics, have become more complex and opaque: the stakes are too high and we are wading through unknown territory. Technology has changed the way we interact with people, places, events, landscapes,cities and states. Distance is rendered obsolete; local ways of knowing are geotagged, mapped and rendered visible (or invisible); Traditional knowledge systems are actively ignored or exploited.

Moreover, I have a feeling that the gap between virtual and physical geographies will continue to occlude, as virtual reality becomes further ingrained in our society. In my daily practice, I have learned one simple truth: The cyborg is deeply flawed, and so am I. With this in mind, perhaps, I can follow the path taken by authors such as Nadine Schuurman, and deal with my own apprehensions by deconstructing the cyborg, uncovering the stories that lie beneath that suspicious shell of authority.

References

Burns, R. (2014). Moments of closure in the knowledge politics of digital humanitarianism . Geoforums, 51-62.

Elwood, S. (2006). Critical issues in participatory GIS: Deconstruction. Reconstruction and New Research Directions. Transactions, 693-708.

Lockayne, D. G. (2016). Sharing and neoliberal discourse: The economic function of sharing in the digital on-demand economy. Geoforum, 73-82.

Mostafa, M. M. (2013). More than words: Social networks text mining for consumer brand sentiments. Expert Systems with Appications, 4241-4251.

Shuurman, N. (2000). Trouble in the heartland: GIS and its critics in the 1990s. Progress in Human Geography, 569-590.

#1

Merriment is a song that will never bloom again in this Godless place.

Where the flowers used to smell sweet and the morning mist used to cover her youthful face like a sacred veil.

Now the grass grows wild, thick, thorny and green: there are fewer and fewer trees.

The fabric of the landscape oscillates intensely, alternating between life and death.

The water flows for the very last time, along a narrow coarse river bed.

We stand frozen, eyes closed, listening to the faint pulse of a dying man.

She said “God is standing beside us”

I imagine His hands resting on my slumped shoulders, in a quiet gesture of parental sympathy.

She said I will never understand, I said “we are all men, we all bleed the same”

She asked does “God weep for his fallen children?”

I kept quiet and we rode inside a light beam, across the sand seas of time.

The landscape hardened, green melted into grey then turned to ash.

We saw the paw prints on black sand, long before the tragedy unfolded.

We could hear the howls long before we had met our end.

Whispers of white smoke drifted from her wet cold lips as she opened her eyes.

and I bathed in her sweet moisture with one last kiss.

A wispy living thing, collapsed and crystallized into a million fractured memories.