Last month the Atlantic featured this ridiculous interactive infographic by researcher Dustin Cable, and I'm sharing it with you now. The project is called "Racial Dot Map". It was inspired by "Cencus Dot Map", an info-map illustrating national population density, created by researchers at MIT and also based on the 2010 census. Easily enough, for both of these maps one single dot represents one single person. But this new map is color coded according to race.
Needless to say, I think it's beautiful. It's interactive capacity has literally entertained me for the past four hours. But there are specific reasons that make this map more fascinating experientially than a simple, if beautiful, bit of research. First of all, despite the absence of actual territorial information—i.e. states, cities, rivers—the physical landscape of the country remains clearly readable through our population density. The raked remains of the Appalachian Mountains are clear to see, evoking the image of a glacial flow, but illustrated only by the packed populations between each wide ridge—the "holler" populations of Appalachia. The Mississippi River comes in and out of focus as well, splitting the densely populated southern US by its void, as well as the deserts and mountains of the western half of the country.
Cable is super proud of the magic that happens when color is processed by our computer screens—a topic he discusses at length on the website—and although the primary discussion point seems to be a fairly obvious thing, it's worth mentioning here. Because, for Racial Dot, there is something like 308 million dots, each dot, at just about every possible level of magnification, is less than a single pixel. So (obviously), the screen adjusts to display a mixed tone depending on how many dots are present in each pixel of space. So when viewing the entire east coast, the population centers tend toward the purple, which seems to be the most shared color for orange (hispanic), brown ("other"), red (asian), blue (white) and green (black). This means that racial distribution, as visually described by the map, is dictated by magnification. At one level we are seeing purple—the blurred concentration of all the colors—; closer: blue; and closer: orange and purple. For proof of this digital weirdness just check out the NYC imgs below, where the delirious island is first blue, then blue and orange, then orange. Once magnified, though, each landscape is broken into chromatically distinct regions illustrating the persistent segregation of American cities. (For those who don't believe US cities are still segregated, grow up, and then check out the map of New Orleans, where blue has the best river front property and the rest of the city is practically split in half.)
What is more fascinating to me, as an experience, is the mutable opacity of the map as you interact between continental scale and a localized city scale. Demagnified, we see huge purple swaths on the map for urban centers, like Portland and Seattle. But once magnified individual dots move further apart, are more clearly expressed, the colors become more transparent, and these dense populations lose much of their materiality. Instead, from one magnification to the next, their edges become decreasingly corporeal, their colors constantly shifting clarity and location as our screens begin representing the chromatic information of less and less points. The resulting impression is that these cities transform into ghostly, immaterial, ethereal smears that incomprehensibly represent populated, material urban centers. The actual digital media of the map itself dematerializes, destabilizes the thing represented. (Baudrillard, watch out.) This idea I fucking love, considering its metaphorical (and temporal) parallels to the lives of cities, cultures, populations, and individuals. In fact, the image of Seattle below reminds me a bit of a figure-ground map of Teotihuacán; not formally, per se, but as far as the materiality of the image and the cerebral understanding of the transience of cities. And, in fact, there aren't many typological differences between a figure-ground map of Teotihuacán and a dot-and-race-based population density map of Seattle.
Whether or not you care how fascinating it is though, the map is still a beautiful device that, as I've admitted, can provide you with hours of aesthetic indulgence, and I love it. For example, check out this image of L.A., which is beautiful (and huge , so click on it; in fact, click on all of these images for larger versions if you haven't done so already). This is also a good example of the dematerializing affect of this map. As the population becomes less dense locally, for whatever geographic reason, the material of the city seems to swirl and shift in and out of a solid, specific form.
Check out the map for yourself here.