I’ve been blogging these past few weeks about infrastructure and how we understand and misunderstand it. It’s my suspicion that we look at infrastructures like the global internet and assume that since the “pipes” connect us all, we’re building connections. That’s often not the case. When we look at how these networks are actually used - the flow, not the infrastructure - we see that most traffic on international networks is local, and that our interactions are profoundly shaped by patterns of language, culture, friendship and familiarity.
Somewhere in the process of exploring this, I’ve started trying to collect maps that depict flow rather than infrastructure, wondering whether it would be possible to build an atlas that depicts globalization and flow.
Which brings us to my inamorata, the BBC’s series Britain from Above. A set of documentaries aired on BBC in August 2008, Britain from Above uses a combination of aerial photography, visualizations and maps to show the infrastructure that makes modern Britain possible and the flow that occurs atop that infrastructure.
I stumbled onto the series looking for city maps made by following taxis, like the Cabspotting maps of San Francisco by Stamen Design. The video clip above doesn’t offer as satisfying and comprehensive a map as I would like, but does include a critical insight that one can only get from a flow map - the overflow of taxis in Central London from crowded thoroughfares to back streets. The thirty seconds of video when London fills with taxis looks like an advertisement promoting congestion pricing.
Other segments do a similarly lovely job of mapping the flow of air traffic, ferries across the Channel and the massive grid of telephone lines. Other segments simply hint at grids I’d love to see, like the water and sewage lines that provide billions of gallons of water to the nation. (On second thought, mapping flow there could get slightly disgusting.)
This is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's blog, My Heart's In Accra.