2nd International Conference on GeoComputation

Computing and the Science of Geography: the Postmodern Turn and the Geocomputational Twist


School of Geography,
University of Oxford, Mansfield Road,
Oxford OX1 3TB, U.K.

Email: bill.macmillan@geog.ox.ac.uk

An Air New Zealand Guest Keynote Speaker

Presented at the second annual conference of GeoComputation ‘97 & SIRC ‘97, University of Otago, New Zealand, 26-29 August 1997


In the wake of Kuhn’s (1962) attack on established notions of scientific progress, Haggett and Chorley (1967) announced that Geography was undergoing a quantitative revolution. In fact, it was more of a battle cry than an announcement. It stirred up rebellion within the discipline and sent marauders off into neighbouring domains to bring back intellectual booty. Like the quantitative revolution, geocomputation is an enterprise stretching well beyond the borders of academic geography. The two movements have many other characteristics in common but they also have import differences, the most significant of which is the most obvious - a radical difference in accessible computing power.

In the period between the heyday of the quantitative revolution and the coining of the term geocomputation, much philosophical water has flowed under the geographical bridge. There have been major surges from humanism, Marxism and, latterly, postmodernism and there have been many minor currents. But throughout this period, the geocomputational tide has been rising, little noticed by the philosophers of geography. Much of their concern, as proponents or opponents, has come to focus on the ‘postmodern turn’. Until recently, they have largely ignored the geocomputational twist in the tail of quantitative geography - or in what they had taken to be its tail.

This paper seeks to place the ‘geocomputational twist’ in its philosophical and historical setting, stimulated in part by a series of email exchanges between the organisers of GeoComputation ‘97 on possible definitions of the neologism. It presents an illustrated argument in support of two propositions: that the quantitative revolution and the burgeoning of computational geography belong to the same, long-standing, intellectual tradition; and that that tradition is flourishing. One could argue, as hinted above, that geocomputation is a continuation or addendum to the quantitative revolution but one can equally well view the latter as a rehearsal for the former. If one takes this position - standing, as it were, at the present looking back then it is clear that the rehearsals were under way well before the 1960s. It is equally clear that geocomputation, when looked at in these terms, has a long way to go before it fulfils its promise.