Geographic Illusion Systems:
Towards a (Very Partial) Research Agenda for GIS in the Information Age

Helen Couclelis
NCGIA and Department of Geography

University of California - Santa Barbara



In their book entitled The Unreality Industry, Mitroff and Bennis (1989) define two kinds of unreality: Unreality One or Artificial Reality makes the unreal look so real that we cannot tell the difference between the two. Unreality Two or Pseudo Reality, on the other hand, makes the unreal so attractive that we no longer care about reality. The authors aim their critique primarily at TV news which, in their view, have turned current events into just another form of entertainment. I was struck by some strong parallels between the representation of current events on TV, as viewed by Mitroff and Bennis, and the representation of the geographic world in GIS, as discussed in this workshop. While the goals of the two enterprises are clearly very different (luring audiences through entertainment, versus winning professional markets through increased efficiency and productivity), both the means (electronic manipulation of facts and images) and the results (production of unreality of both the first and second kind) have strong similarities. This is not to denigrate an immensely useful technology, but rather to better understand it in the context of the information society of which it is part. Such understanding is all the more critical in view of a third kind of unreality the information society is generating - let's call it Unreality Three, or Geographic Unreality. Together, the three unrealities suggest a research agenda that this workshop may wish to take up.

No one will deny the close relationship between television and computers (especially the desktop kind): as physical objects, as electronic technologies, as visual representation devices, as icons of the information age. It is hard to imagine a society falling in love with desktop computers that was not already in love with its TV sets. The world in a box in two formats: as the six-o'-clock news on your kitchen counter, as the pulsating Netscape logo in your office/bedroom. The world in a box, more literally still, as the layers in your ARC/Info.

Mitroff and Bennis (1989, p. 40-51) spell out the mechanisms of unreality production in the media. Among them are: boundary warping, or the distortion and confusion of boundaries between realms of reality (between fact and entertainment, between actual and possible, between past, present and future); image engineering; the disconnectedness of ideas ("no connective thread, overall context, or historical perspective is provided..."); a self-sealing universe, referring "less and less to anything outside of their own artificially self-constructed self-contained world"; radical simplification; reverse causality; the decentralized industrial stage of unreality production; and infrastructure penetration. It is rather trivial to argue that these characteristics also apply to the geographic world as represented in GIS. More subtle is the relation of GIS to some other unreality production mechanisms on Mitroff and Bennis' list, which at first sight do not seem to apply to apersonal information systems: personality fragmentation or splitting of the person (faces, other body parts, or moods and emotions are treated out of the larger context of the person); person engineering (personalities may be packaged to fit any popular stereotype); and personality reduction (abstract ideas tend only to exist if embodied in a concrete person). But try to substitute "geographic concept" for "person" - think of the standard data structures and operations, the display conventions, the reified polygons and layers, the language of objects and fields - and the pattern is once again recognizable.

Analogies, however instructive, should not be pushed too far. The point here is that GIS, like television, is much more than just a means to access information about the world. The immediacy and sensory concreteness of the visual electronic media have cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social effects far beyond the factual knowledge conveyed by the data or facts underlying the representations (Meyrowitz, 1985; Couclelis, 1994). Just as television (unlike the newspaper) blurs spatio-temporal distinctions and substitutes the illusion of direct experience for the narrative ("once upon a time, once upon a place..."), GIS (unlike the map or the text) lets you see and explore the world without the hassle of the trip, the field work, the regional study, the voyage of discovery. Come on, kids, let's have GIS show you your neighborhood! Look through this screen, politicians, and see where your worst problem lie!

Reasonable people will always know the difference between map and territory, even as the territory begins to look increasingly like the map. But even if Unreality One (not being able to tell the difference) can be avoided, reasonable people may be forgiven if they find Unreality Two (not caring about the difference) too comfortable at times. On both counts it may be argued (but that would be another paper) that GIS through its images, and what can be done with them, creates beliefs (mythologies, some would say) and molds habits of mind in thinking about the world unlike any that would exist without it. Many others have commented on the dangers of reducing the geographic to the measurable and the visual (Gregory, 1984), and of the silent, invisible, or abstract geographies that may fall by the wayside. Of more concern here is the converse issue of the unreal worlds thus produced - colorful, classified, complete, obvious, remarkably uniform worlds in appearance and behavior, and yours to change at a keystroke.

Put this in the context of Unreality Three, Geographic Unreality, or the budding virtual geographies of places, communities, and interactions taking shape along telephone and fax lines and especially the Internet. In a striking example of life mimicking art, cyberspaces, cyberplaces, and cybercitizens have popped out of the pages of science fiction and into the mainstream of economic and social life. The public interest in this phenomenon is phenomenal, as the myriad of related media discussions, publications, and conference announcements suggest. The terms cyberspace and cyberplace themselves, along with the widespread claims regarding the demise of distance in the information age, constitute open challenges to geography. Yet GIS, "geography's piece of the information revolution" (Goodchild_), has so far had nothing to say on these virtual geographies forming around us. Indeed, its solid grounding in geocoded information as the fundamental building block appears to preclude the study of spaces, places and events that are not so rooted. Thus we have the paradox of a technology that endows the material world with a host of virtual properties (as in Unrealities One and Two), while the "real" virtual world (Unreality Three), the properties of which are already having widespread impacts on the material world, still escapes it..

These thoughts suggest a number of questions that may be addressed as part of a research agenda for GIS in the context of the information society:

1 To what extent is GIS used (in education, management, administration, research, etc.) as a substitute for, rather than as a complement or enhancement to, other, more direct experiences of the geographic world? What is lost through that substitution, what is gained?

2 What differences are there in geographic understanding, in spatial reasoning, decision making, and problem solving, in how geographic phenomena and problems are perceived, in judgments as to what kinds of issues are most important, between those who have been taught geography with a heavy emphasis on GIS, compared with those who had a more traditional geographic education?

3 How can GIS help integrate the virtual geographies with the actual geographies of the information society? How can it keep realities and unrealities from fusing together (or should it?...).


Couclelis, H (1994). Spatial technologies. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 21:2, 142-3.

Gregory, D (1994). Geographical imaginations. Blackwell: Cambridge, MA.

Meyrowitz, J (1985). No sense of place: the impact of electronic media on social behavior. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

Mitroff, Ian I. and Warren Bennis (1989). The unreality industry : the deliberate manufacturing of falsehood and what it is doing to our lives. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

Return to