Dialectics of Geospace with Eugene Eremchenko: From meaning to “digit” and back again

Eugene Eremchenko is head of the Neogeography group (Russia), editor-in-chief of Geocontext annual Digital Earth almanac, a member of Council of the International Society for Digital Earth (ISDE) and head of Russian National Chapter of ISDE, researcher at Lomonosov’s Moscow State University.


Geography as a scientific discipline is changing in the 21st century. What is behind the changes: new technologies, new marketing, new science?

The changes are revolutionary indeed. Satellite imagery has entered our lives. Images of any area, taken at any time of the day and at any season, are now constantly available on the web for everyone and show our planet from any point of view. For the first time we saw the world as it is, holistic and not mediated by cartographic signs — and felt the difference instantly. The revolution was caused by Digital Earth. The former US Vice President Al Gore proposed the idea and term in his speech in 1998. Appeal of the White House was accepted, and 15 years ago, in 2005, Google Earth appeared.

Has this led to new technology? What means “digital” term in your opinion?

Good question. The widespread appreciation of “digital” terminology is a mark of a desperate search for a panacea for the crisis that the world is plunging into. And yet “innovative”, “digital” technologies promise prosperity and solutions to all the world’s ills exclusively in an instrumental way – like with the help of smartphones and gadgets.

The term “digit” is still mesmerising society. Its meaning is incomprehensible, but the symbol of faith could not be determined – you cannot believe in what you can know, and vice versa. What is the present meaning of the word “digit”? Until recently, it seemed quite clearly defined in mathematics. Later it became associated with one of the types of computers and electronic devices. Today word “digital” has become a “seal of excellence”, but through the frequent reference, it fades and lose its significance. Someone will see a simple cargo cult behind the magic of “digits”. Instead, we note that this faith offers a unique opportunity to reveal the unconscious complex, which has generated the current crisis and has its roots in geography.

Very interesting, what is this unconscious complex associated with signs in geography?

“Digital transformation” is a dissocitation of sign and substance — its material carrier. It occured for the first time in the history. Prior to this, signs and substances were indissoluble, signs were “frozen” to substances. They are separated now – apparently forever.

Up to now there were different types of signs implemented in different types of substances: coins minted in metal, banknotes printed on paper, contracts written on parchment, religious symbols carved in stone, etc. Everything has changed now. A single carrier of any information, any sign, have appeared, and now signs migrated to global Internet ecosystem. Material manifestations of signs become archaic and exotic. The sign invention at the dawn of humankind and its present dissociation with substance — are two main events in humankind’s evolution, the rest is secondary. We live in an era of great change.

I study the connection between geometry and semiotics (the science of sign systems), and it turned out that this connection is visible clearly in DNA. But how is Digital Earth, and geography itself, generally related to the appearance of signs and their transformation?

Indeed, semiotics is the most general of disciplines, the true “queen of sciences”, and in this sense, our meeting is not accidental. But what is the role of geography in the genesis of signs?

Historically, map signs were invented much earlier than other signs – like hieroglyphs, letters, and numbers. The oldest of the known mature maps was created more then eight thousand years ago, meaning that at that time the cartographic method was already developed. It is natural to assume that very first sign was a simple line that separates space into two qualitatively different areas. Dividing line ignited categorical thinking, later signs were developed. Map became the first information system in history – and distorted history inevitably. The next pivotal point of signs evolution took place in the same geospatial realm just again, thanks to Digital Earth.

What is the Digital Earth definition and how does it differ from maps?

Digital Earth could be defined as a new geospatial approach that provides freedom for observer to select: 1) direction of sight, and 2) scale (distance).

There is nothing new at first glance, but simplicity is deceiving. None of these two properties can be achieved using maps, which until recently seemed to be the only and ultimate tool of geography. Digital Earth is not a map. Moreother, it contradicts map definition in all its elements.

Digital Earth relieves us of the limitations intrinsic to maps and therefore ineradicable with their help. It is a single geocentric model of the Earth and near-Earth space for all scales and all points of view. With its help more accurate forecasts can be made, challenges and threats can be counteracted earlier and more cost effectively, actions can be planned better. Fatal flows of control systems, inspired in the distant past by the cartographic method, such as their hierarchical splitting, were overcome. After all, Digital Earth do not addressed the effectiveness of strategic or tactical levels of decisione-making; it overcome  hierarchical fragmentation completely, therefore quality of decision-making is improved. The World is no longer artificially divided into multi-scale, inconsistent replicas; this fact is widely used to achieve superiority yet.

Digital Earth is a universal geocentric volume for any information, localized in space and time; it should be noted that any information is localized in space and in time, as proved by Kant.

Interestingly, in spite of its radical scientific novelty, Digital Earth was anticipated in the past many times as a “Fairy Globe“, final goal of cartography evolution. In the novel “Master and Margarita” of famous Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov so-called “Woland’s magic globe” was described. It is exactly Digital Earth, predicted accurately, completely, in the finest details half a century before Al Gore. Moreover, it is described in much more realistic and figurative way. The same idea can be traced in Russian literature to at least the mid of XIX century. This ideal geographical interface was anticipated in other cultures as well. If there is no new under the Sun, then the Digital Earth was rooted in the deepest layers of the collective unconscious.

The revolution in governance, generated by Digital Earth, is obvious, but let us go back to the scientific revolution. In fact, Digital Earth is “non-digital” in a sense.

It turns out that the name and meaning are the opposite?

The term and its meaning could be opposite in modern science. We say “atom”, that means “indivisible”, although we know that atom could be divided. We hear about “3D-maps”, although the word “map” relevant to flat, 2D-surfaces only. Any modern information system is “digital”, it is not specific feature of any of them. Digital Earth is as digital as everything today.

Moreover, Digital Earth does not have specific technologies. A new quality is achieved not by the means of new technologies, but rather by abandoning the previous ones. Therefore, it is a new scientific principle.

Essence of Digital Earth is using of direct, not mediated by signs representation of Earth. Map signs were replaced by images. Signs remain, but become secondary, auxiliary, and optional elements of the new geospatial approach.

Interestingly, the very first signs were embodied initially by the analog methods. Then, already in our era, they began to be reproduced using the “digital” methods. Finally, everything has changed to the opposite. The original, unmediated vision of geospatial environment is now implemented with the help of “digits”; this is how the “negation of negation” dialectic law works. It is what connects the main intrigue of geospatial revolution.

Explain in more detail what the geospatial revolution intrigue is.

The “digital revolution” is a process of dissociation of the signs and the material world. The “digit” today is nothing more than a sign freed from its specific material carriers. Now realm of signs is isolated from matter, from real world, and opposition of both realms becomes the central moment of the historical process. Immersed into virtual reality, signs lost their localization in space and time. This creates severe imbalances – a breeding ground for the “digital economy”. Digital Earth is called to cope with this problem, as it is a replica of the real world immersed in the virtual world.

But this Earth virtual replica has a sign-less nature. It turns out that information carriers can be not only signs, but also something else. This means that the subject has at least two channels for perceiving external reality: signs and non-signs. Even more interesting, we realized this fact again by the geospatial realm.

Throughout the history, signs were thought to be the only information medium possible, and the developing of signs was only possible form of human cultural development. Cartographic signs and methods have always been at the progress forefront, improved continuously and over many millennia have been brought to an extremely high degree of perfection. The most archaic myths are associated already with the nature of signs. Until now, for example, there is no consensus what was first: real world, or the signs? At first glance, the answer is very clear and simple – the signs are created by humans and, therefore, are secondary to the real world. Nevertheless, there is mirror-opposite concept — “In the beginning was the Word.” It means that signs preceded the world emergence. The special role of spatial signs in the categorical thinking can be traced down to the myth of Expulsion from Paradise. Now we are back to this ancient problem but at a qualitatively new stage of development. Which unconscious complexes will be affected, we can only guess so far. We note only one consequence.

Our being in the world is based on the idea of borders – national, regional, cadastral, etc. However, is it inevitable that civilisation is doomed to exist separated by borders? Or this separation was initiated in the distant past by cartography method, and today we are able to consider alternatives? To what extent a border concept is natural, and to what extent can it give way to more natural and truer alternatives, and what will they be in this case?

This is how the dialectic manifests itself. Historically, the first and most consisted of symbolic constructions – geography – in its development process through the “negation of negation” evolved into new, synthetic construction in which signs are no longer the only and main information carrier. It provides a much more effective, accurate and holistic environment perception than could be achieved with the help of signs; efficiency of decision making increases dramatically.

In this case, how to implement to the semiotics a second, unsigned component? For this purpose, it was proposed to introduce a “zero sign” semiotic concept – entity that is not a sign, but able to transport meaning. In semiotics, the zero sign is implemented in complete analogy with the zero sign in mathematics. Semiotics is contradictory without the zero sign concept. It is also obvious that the concept of signless perception is a significant challenge for modern science.

So it turns out that the sign is the focus of modern civilization problems. What does this mean for humanity as a whole?

Digital Earth development has led us to a conscious review of the initial stages of the formation of our consciousness. Therefore, its inevitably affects the most archaic unconscious layers. The scope of the discoveries that await us apparently has no precedent in the history of science.

Humankind has come full circle, having formed categorical thinking based on the map signs in the distant past. Later it consistently developed the idea of signs, built all social institutions on it, and then brought the idea to absurdity in the era of “digital transformation” and “digital economy”. Finally, nowadays it has realized that there is a way out of the cul-de-sac of dependence on the signs. However, the twists and turns of intellectual history of humankind is a completely different issue…

Interview: Ivan Stepanyan

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