Web GIS Semiosis: Building a Plural Space
Emanuela Casti (University of Bergamo, Italy) [BIO]
The present study applies a semiotic perspective to cartographical studies with the aim to show the iconizing role of webmaps, i.e. their ability to generate meta-geographical knowledge. Our analysis focuses on a specific type of maps known as Web GISs, whose relevance lies in their effective overturning of paper-based cartography. Rather than figuring as the static outcome of intentional representation, Web GIS maps exhibit unique interactive functions, which enable them to make sense of territory through the perspectives of the web user and to bring forward a sense of place whereby the appeals of culture and identity are restored. Eventually, such interactivity gives rise to a plural cartography and yields a sense of place which relies on a postmodernist view of territory. In that view, new common and plural spaces, stipulated by unofficial groups of social intervention, successfully challenge the definition of “public place” held up by a dominant society.
While still in its drafting phase, the study of new Web GISs in a semiotic perspective opens up a wide range of issues dealing with the specific features of this type of online cartography. It is a field that may well prove invaluable for promoting new investigations on map-induced “iconization”. The extraordinary semiotic potential of Web GISs hinges on one term, often abused if still largely unexplored: interactivity.
For the kind of open interactivity found in Web GISs, based on pragmatics, is the one responsible for boosting map-based iconization. Interactivity meets the web user’s expectations as to the potential of this technology by placing emphasis on system transparency. And this entails an enhancement of the map’s iconizing power, of its ability to substitute for reality and “give shape to” another reality. In the case of Web GISs we are faced with a revolutionary shift. Maps generate an unlimited number of realities. That is achieved by a novel form of interactivity, not limited to the conventional interaction between cartographer and map, but involving both interpreters (developer and web user) who now draw a map by tapping an unprecedented repository of information: the database. In this case interactivity meets the web user’s goals, as it offers a subjectivist view of territory that—by virtue of its openness—is tied up to multiple other views: iconization is made plural.
Web GIS maps provide a new arena for confrontation between social and identity issues that are ever-developing and ever-changing. Such systems are based on a much higher degree of communicative dynamism than is found in traditional cartography; a dynamism that makes it possible for us to embrace a fuller level of iconization in which our own identities are defined and re-defined in a boundless communicative network. This is where we witness that “cartographic threshold leap” whereby a new sense of territory comes to the fore. For territory may now be incessantly altered, in a discourse that endows “place” with ground-breaking value and acknowledges its far-reaching social implications. It is the subject who invests place with value, who identifies with it and finds inspiration to act upon it. And map production enters “a new world,” not much because it occurs and it spreads on the World Wide Web, but because it is finally redeemed from the stigma of representing a “denial” of place. Place can now be regained in its plural value, from a standpoint that is finally democratic.