R.M. Edsall

Arizona State University, School for Geographical Sciences, Tempe, AZ, USA


In 1967, Marshall McLuhan predicted that electronic media will serve to homogenize experiences across cultures and create a unified society a global village of cultural compatibility. However, the global village, he noted, would also serve to blur diversity by ignoring individual cultural identities. His prescience was revealed by the ubiquitous and standard ways that technology is presented to worldwide users in particular the ways humans interact with computers. Users of computers vary widely worldwide in terms of language, values, traditions, and other dimensions of culture, however, much of the software that allows us to interact with computers was designed by and for Westerners in the US or Western Europe. To what extent do these designs limit the use of and insight from computer systems for members of the global village who, because of their culture, may not interact with the computer in ways that the designers expect or intend? This paper examines these and related questions with particular attention to the design of environments, including the interface and the actual data representation, for geovisualization, visual analytics, and cartography in general.


In the human-computer interaction (HCI) literature, models of culture and observations of important cultural differences have proven to design culture-specific or culturally sensitive computer applications. The implications for geovisualization applications may also be significant. I see two possible strategies for incorporating culture-specific design in visualization applications. An obvious approach is to foster the type of learning and thinking characteristic of the culture. Marketers, web site designers, and engineers of software for the popular market use this approach, as they should, for it would be counterproductive to have users uncomfortable with their interfaces. In the paper, I will explore the idea that the opposite approach may also be appropriate for visualization application, running counter to the conventional wisdom of designers of applications for which there is a well-defined goal. Because geovisualization applications frequently have only vaguely defined goals, if any, it may be useful for cartographers and other designers of methods for representing spatial data encourage unconventional thinking about a problem. My paper will argue that strict adherence to conventional metaphors some of which may be culturally determined for representing geographic information may serve to blinker a user to a specific way of approaching a problem or observing and exploring a phenomenon.