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Spring 2004
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"Crossing Borders"
A quarterly column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers

Technology and Geography

Doug RichardsonThe Association of American Geographers' (AAG) centennial anniversary this year has prompted the publication of many new books, including a volume just out entitled Geography and Technology, which raises many questions central to the Esri user community and the future of GIS and geography. In my foreword to the book,* from which the observations below are drawn, I noted that while new technologies have always been important in advancing geographic understanding, never have they been so thoroughly and rapidly transformative as at this stage in geography's evolution.

Just as new technologies have in the past profoundly expanded both research possibilities and the knowledge base of other disciplines, such as biology, physics, or medicine, so too are the revolutionary new geographic technologies developed during the past few decades extending frontiers in geographic research, education, and applications. They are also creating new and resurgent roles for geography both in society and universities.

This trend is still accelerating, as the integration of geographic technologies, such as the global positioning system and geographic information system (GPS/GIS), is creating an explosion of new real-time, real-world applications and research capabilities. The resultant dynamic space/time interactive research and management environments created by interactive GPS/GIS, among other technologies, place geography squarely at the forefront of advanced multidisciplinary research and modeling programs and have created core organization management tools (geographic management systems) that will dramatically change the way governments and businesses work in the decades ahead.

While these and other important geographic technologies, including remote sensing, location-based services, and many others addressed in the book, are forging new opportunities for geography and society, they also pose challenges. Inherent within all advanced technology is the potential for its abuse as well as for creative and beneficial uses within science and society. As geographers and developers of new geographic technologies, we have an obligation to employ our expertise to help ensure that appropriate regulatory and legal frameworks are implemented to safeguard civil liberties and locational privacy as these new technologies become ever more widespread in research and applications. We must also work to ensure that these technologies are accessible to community-based groups and that their benefits accrue to those historically dispossessed around the world.

Our new geographic technologies also are embedded in and magnified in their impacts by parallel developments in technology generally, including the broad advances in computers, the Internet, wireless communications, and many other areas. It is also the case that a great deal of cutting edge research and innovation related to new geographic technologies has originated in geography's burgeoning private sector, exemplified by dynamic and creative companies such as Esri or my former company, GeoResearch. This new reality highlights the need to foster better linkages and coordination among private, public, and university geographic researchers and research agendas—as is common in other disciplines blessed with strong private or public sector research components—if we are to sustain both the science and educational infrastructure necessary to achieve the full potential of GIS and other key geographic technologies in the years ahead.

Perhaps most important, there remains a need to better integrate geography's transformational new technologies with geography's traditional strengths and its characteristic diversity. Technology in geography does not pose a threat to our traditions; it offers a way to extend and revitalize these traditions. Just as the microscope and DNA sequencing have revolutionized research, education, and applications in biology, and in so doing made the work of Linnaeus and Darwin ever more important to modern science and medical applications, so too will new geographic technologies—such as interactive GPS/GIS—extend research horizons in traditional areas across the full breadth of geography and make its applications more central to the needs of our society and our rapidly changing world.

Conversely, it is also clear that geographic technologies are integral to the intellectual core of our discipline and that an understanding of their evolution and impact is essential to understanding the history and philosophy of geography as a discipline. Our ways of thinking and doing as geographers always have been and will continue to be intertwined with advances in technologies that, while neither intrinsically good nor bad, in the best of hands help us to see beyond, integrate the disparate, visualize complexity, communicate the remarkable commonplace as well as the merely extraordinary, bridge continents and disciplines, and create geographic understanding.

I commend those who have pioneered these new technologies in geography whether GIS professionals, engineers, computer scientists, or geographers, for their contributions to geography. And I applaud the editors and the authors of Geography and Technology for their foresight and insight at this centennial moment in AAG's history by producing this important publication. The topics and issues addressed in this centennial publication will be critical to the future of geography and GIS and to that of our world during AAG's second century.

Feel free to contact me (e-mail: drichardson@aag.org) with any questions, comments, or ideas.

-Doug Richardson

*Geography and Technology, edited by Stanley D. Brunn, Susan L. Cutter, and J.W. Harrington, Jr., 2004. Kluwer Academic Publishers (the Netherlands), pp. XI-XII. The book is available from the publisher or from AAG at www.aag.org.

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