Judith Reppy/John Cloud, Cornell University The Cold War and the Rise of GIS

Most of the fundamental technologies of contemporary geography were devised in the last half of the 20th century and were shaped by the exigencies and opportunities of the Cold War. The technologies and their data sources were initially often deeply secret. Out of this has emerged a large and complex industry of geographic and allied technologies, at the center of which are geographic information systems (GIS), that integrate geo-referenced data by techniques of overlay. Prior research by the co-PI suggests that GIS emerged from the convergence of the geographic sciences during the Cold War. This new system of technologies and practices developed not despite, but rather through a complex and enormously productive system of classified knowledge production that transformed American scientific institutions and practices, but also thoroughly disguised the nature and sources of the exchanges. Standard histories of GIS acknowledge earlier initiatives in overlay technique, but do not pursue them. Where, how, when, and by whom did geographic integration by overlay develop? How did overlay change from analog to digital systems, and how did these systems transfer to civilian use? And why have these earlier stages of the history of GIS been ignored? Integration by overlay has complex roots in prewar regional planning, but the major part of the analog-to-digital transition occurred in near-real-time mapping systems using reconnaissance imagery that was among the most closely guarded secrets of the U.S. government. These Military Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) lost their initial "M" to emerge from classified programs as-GIS. The chronologies and emphasis of standard histories of GIS constitute part of the surviving cover story.

This project explores the history of GIS within a framework informed by science and technology studies and the literature on dual use. Through interviews, archival research, and examination of previously classified or deliberately suppressed records the project reveals a history of GIS that is longer, darker, and altogether more interesting that previous accounts have suggested. The project advances the geographic sciences by illuminating a significant period in GIS development that has been overlooked or ignored. Examining these technological transitions in grounded detail provides an important case study in Cold War science and technology. And it discloses early applications of overlay linked to public involvement in analysis and planning with important implications for contemporary initiatives to broaden public participation in GIS. Products of the study include presentations at appropriate conferences, publications in peer-reviewed journals in the disciplines of geographic information science and studies of science and technology, a web publication with historically significant data sets from the "pre-history" of GIS; and an augmented essay for the Exploratory Essays Initiative of the "History of Twentieth Century Cartography Project." This research recovers one of the most important stories of the secret geography of the Cold War

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Keith R. Benson
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Cornell University
United States
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