Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Man or machine?

While reading this week's articles I was struck by the constant discussion of the impact of GIS on the field. Obviously it appears there are scholars who are thrilled by the development of this geographic "tool" and those that are concerned for the future of the field.

More interesting to me however was the discussion of the way GIS is applied. Specifically, in the Sheppard article he discusses in great detail how GIS has impacted the ways of knowing and culture in a broader sense. I guess my question revolves around his main question - is it the impact of the technology or the social context that generate the issues he discusses. Are the authors we read for this week granting too much autonomy to GIS itself? Are not human scholars the people truly driving the research projects represented in their final stage by GIS?

This question might not seem that interesting but I was struck by how Sheppard, and possibly Openshaw, place such emphasis on the technology. Yes, Sheppard addresses the vague concept of "social context" but does not directly address the scholars themselves. Therefore, I kept thinking isn't the debate geographers are facing regarding the use of GIS the same all scholars face whenever they engage in research?

It is our duty to constantly question our ways of knowing and the biases we bring to any research problem to understand and look for what is being included and what is exlcuded and the resulting effect our research may have on society. Has that responsiblity shifted so much in regards to GIS that geographers are now "scapegoating," and I use that term loosely, and placing the responsibility on the technology?


umaysay said...

I totally agree with Mark. I have seen some people, who are proficient with research programs or tools, brag and sometimes don't care about philosophical matter and ethical impact of their research on society. They seem to only consider more sophisticated research tool. I strongly believe that it is more important to realize what and how we should investigate in society than in which way we need to do that. Technology is just a tool to support our inquiry. It can not show objective finding per se...

Kevin said...

Great comments. I think it;s impossible to be completely objective in research. Even the tools we use to conduct research, such as GIS, have some component of bias to their design. Programmers have to make decisions as to how the software will function, thus constraining what you can and cannot do. Therefore, as Mark said, we need to focus more on societal impacts of our research than the ways in which the research is carried out.