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Technology & Engineering Remote Sensing & Geographic Information Systems

Geography's Quantitative Revolutions

Edward A. Ackerman and the Cold War Origins of Big Data

by (author) Elvin Wyly

West Virginia University Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2019
Remote Sensing & Geographic Information Systems, Geography, Privacy & Surveillance), Science & Technology
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    Publish Date
    Nov 2019
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    Publish Date
    Nov 2019
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Do you have a smartphone? Billions of people on the planet now navigate their daily lives with the kind of advanced Global Positioning System capabilities once reserved for the most secretive elements of America’s military-industrial complex. But when so many people have access to the most powerful technologies humanity has ever devised for the precise determination of geographical coordinates, do we still need a specialized field of knowledge called geography?

Just as big data and artificial intelligence promise to automate occupations ranging from customer service and truck driving to stock trading and financial analysis, our age of algorithmic efficiency seems to eliminate the need for humans who call themselves geographers—at the precise moment when engaging with information about the peoples, places, and environments of a diverse world is more popular than ever before. How did we get here? This book traces the recent history of geography, information, and technology through the biography of Edward A. Ackerman, an important but forgotten figure in geography’s “quantitative revolution.” It argues that Ackerman’s work helped encode the hidden logics of a distorted philosophical heritage—a dangerous, cybernetic form of thought known as militant neo-Kantianism—into the network architectures of today’s pervasive worlds of surveillance capitalism.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Elvin Wyly is a professor of geography and chair of the Urban Studies Coordinating Committee at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and former editor in chief of the journal Urban Geography.

Excerpt: Geography's Quantitative Revolutions: Edward A. Ackerman and the Cold War Origins of Big Data (by (author) Elvin Wyly)


In a period of vibrant innovation in the decades after the Second World War, a “quantitative revolution” swept through many of the social sciences, altering the logics, methods, and practices of knowledge production. This revolution was particularly transformative in the field of human geography, in part because of the discipline’s aspirations to overcome its small size and weak position in the pecking order of elite universities—particularly in the United States. The revolution was also enmeshed with the development of science and technology practices that came to be known as the military-industrial complex. Yet geography’s revolution was remarkably short-lived, quickly followed by a series of dramatic insurgencies questioning its underlying philosophy, methods, and politics. In the space of little more than a decade—from the early 1960s to the early 1970s—the field became a dynamic, dialectical site of struggle between positivist spatial science and an evolving plurality of alternatives and oppositional movements. While many of the earliest challenges came from comparatively conservative currents in regional and cultural geography, the field was soon remade by Marxist, environmentalist, antiracist, and feminist mobilizations.

A great deal has been written about geography’s quantitative revolution. Much of that literature has emphasized the dramatic turning points of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and for many observers today—conservatives and radicals alike—contemporary history begins with the intellectual and political evolution of David Harvey. His 1969 Explanation in Geography, written in his years at Bristol, became an instant classic, widely described as the Bible of a quantitative positivist geography that had by then become the mainstream. Even as he submitted galley proofs of Explanation, however, he was rethinking everything after arriving to take up a position at Johns Hopkins. Baltimore was in flames with antiracist and antiwar protests, and Harvey’s radicalization eventually culminated in a sort of liberation theology for the discipline’s scientific scriptures in the deeply influential 1973 Marxist manifesto Social Justice and the City. Harvey also engaged in high-profile battles with the field’s most prominent defender of spatial science, Brian J. L. Berry.

Today, however, our understanding of geography’s quantitative revolution is itself in the midst of a wide-ranging reconsideration. Three factors are most significant. First, we are seeing further into the prehistory of the field’s revolutionary moments. Thanks to the genealogical and oral history work led over the past two decades by Trevor Barnes, we are gaining a much more situated, intimate biographical understanding of the establishment geography that was the target of revolutionary challenges in the 1960s and 1970s. We now know much more about the extent of geographers’ roles in the intelligence apparatus constructed by the United States in the 1940s and in some of the Nazis’ wartime operations. Thanks to Neil Smith’s geopolitical and biographical history of Isaiah Bowman, we know more about the militarization of geographical knowledge in the First World War, the discipline’s entrenched reliance on the eighteenth-century philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and the political struggles involved in the catastrophic decision to close Harvard’s geography program in the 1940s. Second, it has become clear that we are now in the midst of a new and more powerful quantitative revolution, with a complex mixture of continuities and ruptures from the paradigmatic struggles of previous generations. As a formalized discipline, geography remains a complex, pluralist field shaped by enduring dichotomies between physical and human subjects, descriptive versus explanatory modes of thought, and mainstream/conservative opposed to insurgent and radical political projects. Yet beyond the formal confines of the academy, geography has suddenly achieved a nearly universal popularity—as the formalized infrastructures of geographical information systems (GIS) diffuse through governments and businesses and as military technologies like the Geographical Positioning System (GPS) fuse with the smartphone “mobile revolution” and big data in the Silicon Valley “disruptions” of everyday life. Everyone seems to love the geography that is shaping the spaces and places of their daily connected lives, even as many continue to see the formal field of geography as little more than the memorization of locational trivia. Do we need geographers? Aren’t there plenty of apps for that?

Put simply, the quantitative revolution is both older and newer than we once thought. It is essential that we recover lost memories from the work of previous generations of human geographers and that we examine the explicit and hidden connections to the latest frontiers of the observation, measurement, and manipulation of information about spaces and places. Our sense of history and geography—always a domain of contestation in science and philosophy—is undergoing an episode of profound, accelerated, and nonlinear evolution. Geography, at least as understood as the engagement with information about the spaces and places of people and environments in a diverse world, is more popular than ever before. And yet one of the paradoxes of our age of algorithmic efficiency and artificial intelligence is that it is no longer clear how many humans we need who call themselves geographers.

In this short book, I wrestle with this paradox of geography’s popularity in an age of automation and dehumanization. My approach is biographical: I examine the interplay of past and present theories and technologies through a close examination of the work of a neglected, often-overlooked figure in the discipline’s evolution: Edward A. Ackerman (1911–1973). In September 1963, Ackerman, who had been invited to be honorary president of the Association of American Geographers, delivered a presidential address titled “Where Is a Research Frontier?” Ackerman’s address was a panoramic survey of the advances achieved by the mathematical and physical sciences in the first half of the twentieth century and a bold exhortation for a weak, marginalized, obsolete geography to step up its game, to work harder to reach and advance those frontiers. Ackerman argued for a deeper engagement with the quantitative methods that were already becoming so important in the field. But he situated quantitative methods within a much more ambitious explanatory framework called General Systems Theory. He portrayed a “revolution of rationalism” in the economic structure of the United States. He described the role of science and technology in the “social problem of automation.” He spoke of how “cybernation” was eliminating the need for individual human decision-making, changing the operations of the nation’s defense program, and enabling breakthroughs in the understanding of “the process of human thought itself.” These futuristic technological themes, of course, are all part of the Cold War infrastructure that John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney have called “surveillance capitalism,”1 which has now developed into the transnational circuits of cloud computing and National Security Agency (NSA) “collect it all” monitoring doctrines.

My central argument is that we can gain a much better understanding of quantitative revolutions—today’s and yesterday’s—by undertaking a close study of the thought, life, and context of Ackerman. The content of his 1963 presidential address illuminates an optimistic, forward-looking faith in modernist, linear scientific progress and the inevitable triumph of an American Dream through the perilous times of wars hot and cold. The unstated context of his address reveals a more situated, happenstance, and bittersweet biographical trajectory that positioned him between academic geography and the military-industrial complex. Ackerman had been intimately involved in the painful disaster of the Harvard closure, and he played a central role in the applied geography practiced in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of today’s CIA. He was also the product of an older mode of geographical thought that looked to the past for its legitimation, back to Kant and to the nineteenth-century fusion of geology and evolutionary theory that created the foundations for American human geography. After the war and Harvard geography’s demise, Ackerman accepted a series of positions—consultant to MacArthur’s occupation forces in Japan, chief geographer for the President’s Water Resources Policy Commission, assistant general manager of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and then finally executive officer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington—that put him at the center of the emerging think-tank infrastructure of American science and technology policy.

By the time he became honorary president for the Association of American Geographers, then, Ackerman had developed a truly unique intellectual and personal, embodied perspective shaped by geography’s historical reverence toward a slow, evolutionary past and its sudden ambitions to catch up to the futuristic advancing wave of mathematical, positivist big science. Situated in the ferment of the postwar fascination with quantitative behavioral science and cybernetics, Ackerman’s 1963 address helps us to see important continuities between today’s worlds of big data and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophies used to build knowledge of a diverse world of different peoples and natural environments. His thought and work in the early phases of the computer revolution in social research, moreover, help us to see some of the early paradoxes of the extraordinary transformation in the nature of scale, aggregation, and statistical inference in the practices of what Donna Haraway has diagnosed as “technoscience.”2 Finally, a consideration of Ackerman forces us to confront the poignant essence of humanity in the practice of scholarly inquiry. Orphaned as a young child, Ackerman landed a scholarship at Harvard and soon became recognized as one of the most brilliant geographers of his generation. He was kind, thoughtful, and principled. And yet in his struggles to build his own career and to nurture an emergent geographical science, Ackerman was shaped by and contributed to a military-industrial complex premised upon hierarchical control and the management of violence. A consideration of the situated, human contradictions of Ackerman is important as we are forced to confront today’s increasingly automated geography, where algorithmic advances are rapidly transforming the meanings of individual human choices, constraints, and perceptions—and the meanings of human responsibility, care, and empathy. Algorithmic aggregation through crowdsourcing, the adaptive auto-recommend interfaces augmented by artificial intelligence, and the pattern-recognition data-mining techniques now widely used in both corporate and military surveillance and micro-targeting—all of these cybernetic advances represent the culmination of trends foreseen by Ackerman more than half a century ago. All of these advances are quickly dehumanizing geographical thought and practice. Algorithmic geographic thought is always changing, and indeed it has become very explicitly evolutionary in the world that the science historian George Dyson calls the “universe of self-replicating code.”3 But you and I—as human author and reader—cannot really talk, persuade, and fight with the algorithms of surveillance capitalism. Previous generations of authors and readers talked, taught, and learned in university seminar rooms and street protests—struggling over the meanings of science, justice, and “progress.” While this still happens today, it is increasingly mediated by the evolutionary algorithmic adaptations of a cybernetic infrastructure that is redefining human agency and human responsibility.

This is a work of theory and synthesis, easily assembled from three types of sources. First, we can evaluate Ackerman’s position within the history of formalized ideas in the discipline through the published literature of the evolving, contested canon of American geographical thought. Second, the Edward A. Ackerman Papers at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming offer a treasure trove of archived documents and correspondence; these files offer evocative clues to the biography of Ackerman’s experiences and ideas and his role in the early years of the field’s quantitative revolution. Third, we can analyze the connections between Ackerman’s thought and the military-industrial complex (yesterday and today) by using the simple “open source intelligence” methods he helped refine at the OSS in the 1940s—careful scrutiny of contemporary public-interest journalism and other readily available government and scholarly documents.

It has been more than half a century since the quantitative revolution began to transform geography, and human memories are fading fast. This era is now widely recalled as an epoch of austere mathematics and bold ambitions for geography to become a “true” science on the advancing frontiers of positivist observation of the external world. This is an important part of the story, but it is partial and incomplete. Ackerman’s life and legacy remind us of a hidden history of positivist geographical thought—a blend of cybernetic engineering metaphors and a distorted form of idealist phenomenology that was hijacked by American military hegemony and the earliest epistemological strains of neoliberalism. The result, a hybrid that I call “militant neo-Kantianism,” has corrupted the discipline and accelerated the algorithmic evolutionary dehumanization of human geography. We must understand this history—a history that is alternately forgotten, distorted, and suppressed—so that we can decide what kind of human geographers we wish to become, and what kinds of human and nonhuman worlds are possible and worth fighting to build.

Editorial Reviews

“Wyly’s approach is sweeping in scope yet detailed in its discussion of the archival evidence. He places great store in sociopolitical and disciplinary context, and makes strong linkages between the past and the present intellectual contexts. The scholarship is meticulous. The writing is fluid and lively.”
Audrey Kobayashi, Queen’s University

“An excellent, concise, critical study.”
Joel Wainwright, coauthor of Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future

“Full of revelatory answers to how, why, when, and where human geography evolved and came into its own during and after World War II. . . . Highly recommended.”???????