Kate Edwards (Los Angeles, 1965) holds a B.A in Geography and a Certificate in Cartography (both from (California State University LB). Moreover, she obtained a MA and a PhC in Geography at the University of Washington and is currently working on a PhD.
Ms Edwards is Principal Consultant and Founder of Englobe Inc. In addition, she is Columnist for MultiLingual Computing and Chair and Founder of the IGDA Game Localization SIG.
Geocultural risks and geoliteracy
What are “geocultural risks”?
In the context of global business, product development and customer relations across boundaries, the idea of geocultural risks is relevant as there exist many unseen challenges and complications to globalization and localization practices.
Many large-scale business risks have been well-identified but the risks of which I’m especially concerned are those emerging from the deep-level geopolitical and cultural (i.e., geocultural) aspects of a local market: the qualities of a culture that are highly meaningful to local consumers yet typically very difficult for an outsider to discern.
Such subtle business risks often escalate in a direct relationship to the depth at which a local culture is offended by an issue; in other words, the greater the local consumer’s devotion to their deep cultural values and practices, the greater the potential for a business’ products and/or services to cause an offense.
Content-intensive products and information services (such as web sites, reference works, educational/training materials, video games, marketing/PR materials) are especially vulnerable simply by their very nature, which includes heavy use of text, icons, clip art, maps, flags, photos, videos, and so forth.
By this broad definition, virtually any business that must communicate to local customers in global markets carries potential risk.
How can governments and companies manage these risks?
This space is probably insufficient to go into all the required detail I can start with three basic steps:
- Be aware: Comprehension of the reality of geocultural risks in content is often 50% of the challenge in starting to address them. This requires a certain level of geographic literacy so that those producing and distributing the content will have some idea as to the potential impact.
- Be proactive: Many businesses realize, and my own experience with geocultural issues confirms, that it is far less expensive and disruptive to find and resolve a blocking issue as early as possible during production than to deal with it far downstream. And yet many companies continue to make huge mistakes that we all often read about in the news.
- Be committed: The key to long-term success is for a company to make the commitment to invest in resources, training and processes that are necessary to stay aware and proactive. Global businesses must integrate this kind of thinking into their normal processes and establish some accountability for managing geocultural issues.
What is “Geographic literacy”? Are the global levels trending upward or downward?
“Geographic literacy” is every person’s baseline level of knowledge and awareness of the physical and cultural environments in which they exist as well as others on this planet.
I see two levels to geographic literacy, the formal and informal. Formally, this is typically represented as the degree to which students are exposed to geography courses, and generally how much geography knowledge they are taught. Informally, this is the information that we all absorb and accumulate in our life experience – from travel, language courses, news, online sources, and so on.
As is often highlighted, the U.S. generally tends to downplay the critical importance of geographic knowledge and thus we’ve seen less emphasis on geography, but frankly, I find it hard to imagine how people can be content living on this planet and not have much clue about what’s where and who’s there.
But the U.S. is not alone, as the National Geographic-Roper surveys on geographic literacy have shown. There seems to be a trend that when a society becomes post-industrial, people start to disconnect a bit with real-world geography. But such studies have also shown that those who use the internet more regularly are far more aware.
So is geographic literacy trending up or down? I’d say that informal geographic knowledge is on an upward trend, mainly thanks to technology like the internet to increase global exposure and the new renaissance of consumer GPS and mapping (like Google Maps on one’s iPhone).
Unfortunately, formal geographic knowledge seems to continue to be on a downward trend as schools cut costs and programs. This is really a problem, as the formal education helps people learn how to appreciate and use geographic information in their everyday lives. Without that connection, all that informal knowledge often remains good for quiz games and crossword puzzles but isn’t leveraged in their workplace.
What definition of geopolitics do you prefer?
I’ve been influenced no doubt by a variety of schools of geopolitical thought, from Mackinder to “critical” geopolitics, but I wouldn’t say I completely subscribe to any one school; in my view it’s all part of a very broad discussion and pigeon-holing a definition is unfair.
Put simply, I describe “geopolitics” as a process of acknowledging a geographic effect from interactions in a political domain, as well as a political effect from interactions in a geographic domain. There are two “spaces” of operation defined here, one defined through physical and cultural geography and another defined through political regimes and the diplomatic craft.
I think at its best, geopolitics can serve as a proactive mechanism for discerning potential problems within various geographies by studying the factors influencing local geography. At its worst, it can be contorted and manipulated to act as a propaganda device for purely nationalistic aims.
Do you apply academic theories and methods in your geocultural risk assessments?
For the most part, I don’t directly apply academic theories in my content reviews. That’s not to say that academic methods haven’t influenced my thinking and approach over the years, they undoubtedly have to some degree.
But the methodology I follow in my risk assessment is something I’ve developed over the past 15+ years of doing this type of work, an approach that works well for me and is probably more closely related to software quality assurance work than to academic approaches. I’m always open-minded about improving my method and I do read various journals, but at this point my process has been proven to work for me and I’m comfortable with it.
One thing I’ve liked so much about this work in the private sector is its very dynamic and impactful nature – something I never felt in the academic world. It’s part of a direct and evolving relationship between information producers and information consumers on a global scale.
What do you mean by “information geopolitics”?
As with more traditional geopolitics, information geopolitics addresses two “spaces” of interactions, the geographic and the virtual information space, but they are two dynamics superimposed upon the existing and well defined geopolitical process.
One dynamic describes the geopolitical effect (i.e., the effect upon politics and geography) from interactions in the virtual information space, while the other dynamic describes the information effect from interactions in the geopolitical domain.
Interactions in the information space are chiefly the conflicts between a global information context and local information contexts. Thus information geopolitics is an attempt to describe an emerging motivation behind geopolitical interaction, the influence of information and representation on the realm of statecraft, sovereignty, and national identity.
In my experience working in the information industry, the information about a place or government or people seems to have increasingly elevated in importance in light of the global ubiquity of information about everything. In other words, governments very much care how people elsewhere (and internally) perceive them.
Why are geopolitical issues important for the games industry?
According to a recent Global Industry Analysts study, the projected global revenue of the video games industry is expected to reach $91 billion by 2015; that’s up from $37.5 billion in 2007! Without question, the gaming industry is one of the fastest growing media segments and certainly has far surpassed the annual revenue of the motion picture industry.
What’s more telling about these numbers is that sales in the U.S. will lag behind the world’s growth while Asia and the Europe-Middle East-Africa (EMEA) region will average 10% or more. What does this mean for the game developers and publishers? Quite simply that the ongoing desire to increase revenues requires increasing the global exposure of their games, which means the game content will be exposed to many more cultures and locales.
Thus, the bottom line is that creating content that appeals to the more global gamer will be increasingly critical, and that in turn requires the consideration of geopolitical and cultural (i.e., geocultural) factors in content development.
What impact had the emergence of internet on cartography and the latter’s representation of (perceived) territorial control?
Well on one level the emergence of internet cartography has created a renaissance in digital mapping in the public sphere. It’s great to see that maps are becoming more integral and usable to people’s everyday lives, enabled with some great technology that has come along recently.
But along with ubiquity comes the challenge of reconciling very divergent government viewpoints on various geopolitical disputes. This has renewed the battle for public mindshare via digital cartography, towards the goal of capturing the geopolitical imagination of the average consumer.
For example, China would really rather not have people think Taiwan is not part of the PRC; Morocco would prefer that people see Western Sahara as a Moroccan province; and so on. So I’ve seen governments refresh their efforts to implore companies like Microsoft, Google and other major cartographic resources to follow their country-specific guidelines. This sometimes happens on for a local internet domain, i.e., tailoring content and expectations to that locale, but these companies will still maintain a “global” viewpoint that more closely adheres to “ground truth”.
Will two-dimensional cartography lose its dominant position at the benefit of three-dimensional maps and other modern cartography techniques?
Personally, I don’t think 2D cartography will lose its position anytime soon. Most spatial information consumers seem to still grasp and prefer a 2D approach, but one that is greatly enhanced with a variety of add-on features – satellite imagery, business information, rudimentary statistical mapping and so on.
I do think that the 2D paper map is seeing its last days, not only for the sake of the environment but the robust nature of small, portable computers that can easily be charged via solar. 3D mapping technology has been around for a long time, but I think we have yet to see the “killer app” that will prove its utility to most consumers.
I think 3D applications that are “heads up” in nature, or a virtual overlay on what the use is seeing, will find more usefulness in the long run (such as some car GPS systems, which show a more orthogonal view of the route, not a 2D map).
Your insights seem to imply that an atlas with “self images” of all countries would be of great value to governments and companies. Do you agree?
Yes, I agree with this possibility but only to a degree. As a cartographer at heart, I will always maintain a commitment to representing “ground truth”, as I believe that at any time you can go to a certain area in the world and empirically measure who’s currently in control of that space (well, I’ll exclude Antarctica and a few other less inhabited areas). So I think a “standard” atlas as a reference source should be a “ground truth” document.
However, that being said, I think it would be fascinating to see an atlas of “self images” of various governments. For most countries, there would be little or no difference but for some there would be significant changes to the geopolitical landscape.
I’m a devout believer of the “more information is better” approach to spatial data, so if it helps spatial information consumers to better understand geopolitical dynamics by comparing divergent “self images”, I think it would be an excellent resource. Part of my job function is to mentally maintain these “self images” and compare them against client data, but it would be fun to commit them to an actual map.