Category Archives: Power/knowledge

A history of the secret

What is the secret, and what is its relation to privacy? Some musings, on reading Clare Birchall’s 2011 paper “Transparency Interrupted” in Theory, Culture & Society.


secret (n.)Look up secret at Dictionary.comlate 14c., from Latin secretus “set apart, withdrawn, hidden,” past participle of secernere “to set apart,” from se- “without, apart,” properly “on one’s own” (from PIE *sed-, from root *s(w)e-; see idiom) + cernere “separate” (see crisis). As an adjective from c.1400. Secret agent first recorded 1715; secret service is from 1737; secret weapon is from 1936.

Of course linked to this is the word private:

private (adj.)Look up private at Dictionary.comlate 14c., “pertaining or belonging to oneself, not shared, individual; not open to the public;” of a religious rule, “not shared by Christians generally, distinctive; from Latin privatus “set apart, belonging to oneself (not to the state), peculiar, personal,” used in contrast to publicus, communis; past participle of privare “to separate, deprive,” from privus “one’s own, individual,” from PIE*prei-wo-, from PIE *prai-, *prei-, from root *per- (1) “forward, through” (see per). Old English in this sense had syndrig. Private grew popular 17c. as an alternative to common (adj.), which had overtones of condescention. Of persons, “not holding public office,” recorded from early 15c. In private “privily” is from 1580s.

To “set apart” and to make private (that is, not available to the public). There are two components: to make private, and an act of separation. Where private means unto oneself, “one’s own” (cf. idiom, a dialect spoken locally or in a small area). And and act to separate or segregate.

(A sense of this remains in officialdom-speak; the word “segregable” is sometimes used in relation to records which can be separated out and declassified from a larger collection of classified records.)

Yet notice also the sense of loss that this entails: to deprive (privation), or to take away. Presumably what is taken away is the sense and benefit of belonging, of not being alone, an “idiot” (Gk. idiotes, private person, especially one without skill, or professional knowledge, a layman).

It is noticeable then that privacy retains more than a bit of the idea of keeping secret. Where the classic definition is “the right to be let alone” in the classic Warren and Brandeis opinion, here we see also the sense of being apart, of not generally being available to everybody (especially the state no doubt).

This allows us then to examine a tentative opposite to the secret, ie., transparency, more critically. As Claire Birchall puts it:

Transparency assumes a secret that can be excavated and brought to light, just as it might suppose a text that can be fully readable (if not, what would be the point of transparency?). Derrida refers to a secret which is unknowable rather than just unknown. It is unknowable not because it is particularly enigmatic, but because knowledge, an event, a person, a poem, text or thing is not ‘there’, not present, in the way that we commonly understand it to be. And so, in any communication, any expression of knowledge, something is always ‘held back’. What is ‘held back’ is in no way held in a reserve, waiting to be discovered. Rather, there is a singular excess that cannot fully show itself: a non-signifying, non-present remainder. For Derrida, the absolute secret resides in the structural limits upon the knowability of the present (of events, meaning, texts and so on). In this sense, there will always be something secret.

In some ways this is straightforward; there is a limit to “knowability.” Full transparency (as access to the full truth, or full knowledge) cannot be achieved. Derrida went on to say that if everything must be made public, if a “right to the secret is not maintained” we are in a totalitarian space (Derrida, A Taste for the Secret, p. 59). On the other hand, at the same time, there is the concept of how democracy could occur without paying attention to your friends, to others in general, if one is totally closed off (private), as obligations/responsibility to community. (Democracy ought to guarantee both the right to reply and the right to remain silent, but does neither, pp. 26-7.)

Donald Rumsfeld said something similar in 2002 concerning limits to knowledge:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

In this typology of knowledge, there are several questions to consider, including why say “known knowns” and not just “knowns”? Or, having started that reflexive move, why end there (there are known known-knowns, etc.).

But there is also one combination missing; “unknown knowns.” What could this mean? How can you both know and not know something at the same time? The philosopher Slavoj Žižek offers an interesting solution. Here we must first know something, but then repress or suppress it.

Žižek was writing in 2004 about the Abu Ghraib scandal, which he interprets as the Freudian unconscious, with a quote from Lacan.

However, and perhaps you can see where I’m going with this, an equally commendable interpretation of unknown knowns are those that have been hidden or segregated; they exist but are not generally accessible.

In other words, what Rumsfeld missed, was precisely the secret.

In her piece Birchall begins to “recuperate” secrecy, as she calls it. Long associated with right-wing governments, she sees instead a valid role for it on the left. To do this she urges us to think about the commons–a secrecy commons. For example, WikiLeaks is interesting and radical not because it brings transparency, but because it uses secrecy to place knowledge into the commons. More specifically, it is non-statist, virtual, distributed, and “largely anonymous” (although this last criterion is effectively unmasked by now, especially with the imprisonment and trial of Bradley Manning as its source).

This is not a bad proposal, although it is perhaps not a complete solution. Indeed it is similar to one I made in my recent (2012) piece in Geopolitics “Outsourcing the State” (Downloads tab). There I argued that there is a process of informational “spin-offs” happening, whereby the government is seeing, indeed happily participating in, an “epistemic shift in sovereignty” (p. 688):

This is by no means to be understood as a central government trying to suppress challenges, or of the state in crisis. Rather, it is the state itself that is outsourcing and spinning off its capabilities in an unprecedented manner, especially in the defence and intelligence sectors. Paradoxically, WikiLeaks is part of this outsourcing, and the insecurities of it playing in this larger game reveal much about how it is supposed to be played – and who can play it and profit from it.

Despite writing the piece 13 months before the Snowden revelations about the extent of contracting in the intelligence community, I cannot claim originality to that insight, which came as a result of thinking through Matt Hannah’s book, Dark Territory, and writing our forthcoming paper on intelligence outsourcing. The phrase “epistemic sovereignty” is Hannah’s, and means who has control over knowledge (usually of course, the state in an informational asymmetry, but here posed as a question or “shift”).

One of the problems here is that we know even less about corporate operations in the DoD and intelligence community than we do about the government. This is not an argument to return everything to the government, or of course that transparency will fix everything. Nevertheless it is an observation opposed to Birchall’s who sees secrecy as a way to bypass neoliberalism, whereas I think it is in line with it.

A secrecy commons may be a good idea, but how long before it is colonized? Or can it keep outpacing capital? Ironically, what may drive capital–technological innovation–may also be required to continually escape it. Where Birchall is a bit out of date already on WikiLeaks, her point that secrecy is worth recuperating, still remains I think, to be explored.

Transparency and secrecy

I’d like to consider in more detail some papers published in Theory, Culture & Society last year. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, these papers represent some very interesting inroads into a better understanding of secrecy, transparency and ultimately perhaps even truth.

Clare Birchall’s article, which introduces the special section, makes some sensible suggestions already in her abstract:

Despite common demands to support either transparency or secrecy in political and moral terms, we live with the tension between these terms and its inherent contradictions daily.

She sets up the terms of the debate as opacity and openness, but goes on to say that “we must work with the tension between these terms” rather than choosing one or the other. There is a tension between them.

This is a good start, but we need to go even further. Obviously the relations between privacy, secrecy, transparency are not symmetric. We can know very little about the state, but it can know a great deal about us, as I’ve said many times before. This is to say only that there are power dynamics at work.

Some of her remarks about a perceived love of transparency, or at least transparency talk, are widely off the mark a year and a half later. “Open government is the new mantra” she writes, “a sign of cultural…authority” (pp. 8-9). Today, this reads like little more than government talking points, but even in 2012 (post sealed indictments against WikiLeaks and the imprisonment of Bradley Manning) they are more than a little optimistic. She does note that some Obama administration transparency efforts have been “compromised” but relegates this to a footnote instead of a central problem to be taken into account. Are there really “countless copycats” of WikiLeaks (p. 15)? I don’t think so.

Also optimistic is her partial history of transparency, at least in the US. Her examples (Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, FOIA, etc.) could all be rebutted by pointing out that often, these were hard won, partial concessions, and that they permitted many other activities to go on in secret. That is, these transparency moves are covers; a kind of secret themselves.

The most striking of these in recent years, for me, was what happened to the government’s transparency website, Unveiled with some fanfare at the tail end of the Bush administration, it was meant to provide a public, user-friendly and authoritative source to government spending on outsourced contracts. In fact, intelligence agencies almost immediately gained exemptions to it (including the NGA and NSA), while others (such as the NRO) just never took part in it. We tell the story of this a bit more in a forthcoming paper “The New Political Economy of Geographical Intelligence” for the Annals. Nowhere on the site does it mention any of this–you have to read obscure GAO documents, and CRS articles that are not directly released to the public.

(Ironically, I recently emailed the NGA press office to inquire if they were still exempt, but have not received a reply or even an acknowledgement. So much for transparency!)

Birchall argues, following Derrida, that the state is placed into an “infinite hesitation” in the face of transparency. It cannot be too transparent, because then it allows no room for personal privacy, and it cannot not be transparent because then it is also hegemonic and clandestine, if not covert.

But could the issue not be resolved by splitting apart the object of analysis and instead of arguing for all-or-none transparency, see citizens as in a relation with the state? To citizens go the choice of privacy-transparency, but to the state goes no choice but the requirement of transparency (and not just the state, but corporate actions).

Ah, but how much choice to the citizen? Well, that’s up for debate, but in my view it’s a better one that debating all-or-nothing transparency/privacy. Here I like what she has to say about the need to resist going “beyond” either term, and get used to inhabiting it strategically (p. 12). I think this is absolutely correct.

One thing to be mentioned here is the role of corporate America. If oversight of government activities is bad, try business, especially intel businesses. These often operate with even less transparency than government (what really does Booz Allen Hamilton do? That $15m intel contract–what’s it for?) As Birchall notes, this can give rise to “lip-service transparency” in the neoliberal context.

There are lots of provocative questions here, and it is surprising that more people have not considered the relations between secrecy, lies, truth, and transparency. (Birchall does give examples of these.) One angle that continues to intrigue, is that between secrecy and knowledge.

Isn’t it interesting that one of the great foundational stories of western religion is that of the tree of knowledge. This tree is forbidden because it has dangerous knowledge (not all transparency is good). So here we enter forbidden knowledges, arcana, Pandora’s Box, the occult, secret societies. The “will to knowledge” then, in Foucault’s words, becomes something both highly problematic and yet compelling.

So in some ways this could be read as another consideration of truth, and the difficulties of truth. Knowledge is about getting the truth. But I do think there’s still a lot to be worked through about secrets, and the relationships between knowledge and truth. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the articles in the TCS special section.

Is transparency enough?

Two recent events have got me thinking about transparency. Particularly whether demands for transparency of process, coupled with oversight, are sufficient to ensure good practice.

The proximate cause of these thoughts was Sarah Elwood’s excellent talk to the geography department “Activism, Civic Engagement and the Knowledge Politics of the Geoweb.” Sarah discussed NGOs and their use of geospatial and GIS technologies, and noted that they claimed these offered a benefit to the user (eg., to increase participation) due to their added transparency compared to previous NGO efforts. Sarah was careful to note that these were the NGO claims, and that they needed further assessment. Given the subject matter of her talk, the clear implication was that transparency alone (ie., access to knowledge about their activities) is no more sufficient than previous claims for transparency of the map were ever sufficient. (The map as a transparent window on to the real world.)

The original comments that started me on this however were a couple of posts on Derek Gregory’s blog (here and here) on covert killing through drone strikes. Here are the pertinent sections, first in the context of a recent report on the civilian impact of drones:

military protocols are indeed more public, even transparent, as the authors note, but the space between principle and practice is still wide enough to inflict an unacceptably heavy burden on the civilian population.

Derek had previously made a more developed version of his point:

Madiha’s root objection is to the way in which what she calls the Obama administration’s ‘theatrical performance of faux secrecy’ over its drone war in the FATA (and elsewhere) – a repugnantly teasing dance in which the veil of secrecy is let slip once, twice, three times – functions to draw its audience’s entranced eye towards the American body politic and away from the Pakistani bodies on the ground.  The story is always in Washington and never in Waziristan.  It’s a hideously effective sideshow, in which Obama and an army of barkers and hucksters – unnamed spokesmen ‘speaking on condition of anonymity’ because they are ‘not authorised to speak on the record’,  and front-of-house spielers like Harold Koh and John Brennan – induce not only a faux secrecy but its obverse, a faux intimacy in which public debate is focused on transparency and accountability as the only ‘games’ worth playing.

It is certainly true that the administration’s “now you see it, now you don’t” position on CIA drone strikes (as opposed to those performed by the military in Afghanistan) are hypocritical. On the one hand they issue the standard Glomar response (“neither confirm nor deny”) about drone use in countries with which the US is not at war (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia). On the other they send out self-congratulatory announcements about killing suspected al-Qaeda members in Yemen, even when they hold American citizenship (such as Anwar al-Awlaki). (Glenn Greenwald has written the most informatively on this, eg here.)

I would also agree with Derek that “false transparency” is deceptive (as is the quest for total or full transparency). However, I would argue that the conditions of knowledge, or if you like the politics of knowledge, are currently in such an asymmetrical state that efforts to rebalance these asymmetries are meritorious. Not just the two recent reports on drones (which I haven’t read yet but plan to do so), but also efforts like WikiLeaks, which I wrote about recently in Geopolitics. The Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers has been truly unprecendented, and brave employees of the NSA, like Thomas Drake, and of the CIA, such as John Kiriakou (who revealed its practice of waterboarding and admitted it was torture) have been charged under the Espionage Act. Not to mentioned Bradley Manning, accused whistleblower, who allegedly provided State department cables to WikiLeaks. (The Drake case was dismissed but the Kiriakou case continues. Proceedings against Bradley Manning are also continuing today.)

While transparency is not enough, and false transparency is misleading, I think it’s important to continue to work for increased government oversight, and I know that it is effective. Things like FOIA and working on declassified documents in archives do yield plenty of information. The FAS Secrecy blog is also highly informational (not least in part because of their use of FOIA to obtain eg., the NGA Congressional budget justifications). In a paper I wrote this summer with two colleagues, Susan Roberts and Ate Poorthuis, we used information we obtained from  corporate filings with the SEC. The paper would not have been as empirically rich without it.

This issue has connections to the vexed problem of visuality, but my focus has more often been on knowledge, and, as here, access to knowledge and denial of access (secrecy). I have a blog post coming up on “the secret” so more on that soon.

Cultural Anthropologists: IARPA Needs You!

Cultural anthropologists: your intelligence advanced research projects activity (IARPA) needs you!

If you thought the Human Terrain System (HTS) marked the extent of the DoD’s interest in “cultural terrain,” take a look at the latest IARPA request for proposals.

The IARPA, which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI, which is in charge of the nation’s National Intelligence Program) will fund proposals that provide ways for a person to experience what it’s like to be another person, particularly one from another culture. This will be more than just controlling an indigenous character in a simulation, or translating another’s worldviews into your own. You must actually experience what it’s like to be “the other.”

Using the language of many an intro Anthropology class, emic and etic, the RFP states:

This Request for Information (RFI) seeks instead to explore new approaches or ideas that could complement these etic analyses by developing first-person cultural simulations whereby one can experience a situation or interaction as if they were someone from a different culture – or what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “from the native’s point of view” (7). This approach towards trying to understand a culture from the “inside-out” has often been associated with what cultural anthropologists call “emic”(8) analysis. As compared to etic approaches, emic analysis looks at behaviors or beliefs in terms meaningful to the cultural native and attempts to convey their perspective as a cultural insider in a way that is situation-dependent, derived from a rich, multi-sensory experience of the world, and is largely derived from implicit associations.

So if you’ve got ideas about how to build an “emic” tool for the intelligence community, the deadline is June 11. Shouldn’t be a problem, right? After all, we’ve come a long way from Geertz:

Whereas Geertz was pessimistic in 1974 about the possibility of ever truly perceiving what someone else perceives (saying that all that could be done was to “scratch surfaces…”)(9), in the 35+ years since his address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we have seen the advent of new technologies and new research that may help us move past scratching surfaces in trying to perceive the world from the “native’s point of view.” Examples include improvements in computing, massive data collection and aggregation, novel methods for data visualization, new graphic user interfaces, rich multi-sensory and immersive environments, as well as significant advances in the behavioral sciences, cultural psychology, neuroscience and psychophysiology. These advances may offer us new opportunities for developing tools that allow a non-expert to virtually (and temporarily) “embody” the perspective of another person from a different culture. This capability may allow them to more accurately grasp a native’s point of view on a particular situation, interaction, or decision – and potentially lead to a reduction in interpersonal and/or intercultural misunderstanding and miscalculation.

Matt Hannah Interviewed on Dark Territories

Exploring Geopolitics has an excellent lengthy interview with Matt Hannah on his latest book Dark Territories in the Information Age.

On the parallels to protest today:

It is perhaps more interesting to note that the parallels between issues of anonymity in physical public spaces and anonymity in the virtual world of electronic information were already clear then. At the same time that boycotters were challenging the state’s ‘epistemic sovereignty’, its right to know everything about the people living within its borders, struggles raged in the streets and courtrooms over whether protestors should be allowed to cover their faces and wear improvised armour (motorcycle helmets, etc.).

The right to see faces and to coerce or injure bodies, like the right to gather personal data and use it to coerce compliant behaviour, were explicitly seen as part of the emergence of what Hamburg activists called ‘cybernocracy’.

In the Occupy movements of today, these links remain clear, even if the strategic and tactical struggles have moved into new areas, for example in protestors’ use of their own camera drones to track police movements.

On the possibilities of “informatinal citizenship” (one of the big takeaways from the book, for me):

By the term informational citizenship I mean a way of seeing many different kinds of knowledge about people, not just knowledge about their preferences among official parties or candidates, as forms of political representation. To exercise informational citizenship would thus be to get involved actively in decisions about what kinds of knowledge are gathered about us, linked to what sorts of social ontologies, by what organisations, to what purpose, what is done with that knowledge, how is it stored and for how long, etc.

The Guardian’s Activate Summit, NYC: Changing the world through technology

The Guardian newspaper is hosting a one-day summit in New York City to explore how with “technology and the internet, we can make the world a better place.” It’s called Activate.

No doubt this raises a number of questions (eg is technology making the world a better place; is it making it a better place in only some ways and for some people, foreclosing other possibilities; and have we frankly gone down the wrong path with some technologies?) but putting those aside as the fears of a typical academic wet blanket, it’s worth noting the topics included.

I was especially interested to see Evgeny Morozov is listed as speaking on geopolitics. He’s currently a visiting scholar at Stanford and author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Morozov was prominent for his blogging about the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt and has written more widely on his doubts about technology effecting social change.

But I wonder why there aren’t more social scientists on the agenda? Is it that we aren’t thought of as working for social change, only for understanding and explaining it? That we’re not activists?

Talk at Florida State

Just back from giving a talk at Florida State, where I gave an early version of the talk I hope to give in Paris at the International Cartographic Association (ICA). The topic was the OSS as America’s first spy agency, and the role of academics–especially cartographers and geographers–within the agency and the post-war legacy on the discipline. This was the first time I’ve presented this material and I think it went well. There were a number of questions afterwards, and the conversation moved into the hallway after we left the room–a good sign.

One grad student contested my reference to the Peters projection, not so much what I said, but Peters’ own claims that the Mercator is a racist map. I think this is still a fairly common reaction, indicating that many people don’t see (or problematise) a connection between geographical knowledges and their socio-political effects.

I stayed with Phil Steinberg while there and we had some interesting chats, including the recent William Cronon controversy. Actually what’s happening with Cronon is a good example of the connection I mention above between knowledge and power.


I must say I think there’s something in this: Is global warming caused by humans? Is Barack Obama a Christian? Is evolution a well-supported theory? You might think these questions have been incontrovertibly answered in the affirmative, proven by settled … Continue reading

Foucault on geography, space and territory

I’m currently working on my chapter for the A Companion to Foucault (Falzon, C., O’Leary, T., Sawicki, J. Eds., Oxford: Blackwell. Forthcoming 2012). My topic is Foucault, geography, space and territory in the “Power and Governmentality” section.

In thinking about this at first I had assumed that there was relatively little that explicitly engages with these topics, broad as they are. The topic is one that is more scattered, and you might say well integrated into the extent of Foucault’s writing. I think I’ll still make this point, and that it’s profitable to see Foucault relating space to his longstanding concerns (“space/knowledge” or space/power/knowledge if you like) but nevertheless there are explicit engagements.

Here’s a minimal list I’m reading through:

Questions on Geography (& Questions back to Herodote)
Eye of Power
Discipline & Punish/panopticon, urban spatial partition
Space vs. history (DE 234 in Japan)
Space, knowledge, power (despite its title one of the less interesting ones)
Security, Territory, Population, esp. Jan. 11.
The three Rio 1974 lectures for the early development of biopower
Heterotopia piece, OT Preface
The governmentality chapter
HF on exclusions
Abnormal 15 Jan
Elden on Foucault as collaborateur to pick up on habitats, urban infrastructure (collective equipments), and public hygiene (cf. the Rio lectures)
BC chapter 1
The confinement of 1657 and challenges of its extent
Translations in our Space Knowledge Power book, some of the case studies, scene settings and elaborations

In terms of topics I think the following are critical:

1. Spatial orderings, exclusions, enclosures, partitions

2. Governmental technologies (eg panopticon, plans, tables, surveys, mappings) and territory

3. The calculative, hence leading to the statistical, risk, norms.

I think the key here is the way that space is not just used as a metaphor but is brought in either in the background of the writings or importantly is foregrounded at key moments.

As you can see, I’m focussing more on MF than the secondary literature as I believe that’s what’s needed in a companion book. There may be a small bias toward stuff from say 1970 onwards but I think that’s supported by the emphasis Foucault places himself.

I’d be glad to hear if there’s anything obviously missing or if this seems offbase. I think the topic is fairly straightforward but you never know. We’ve got around 8k words, so actually not a lot of room to dwell.

Couclelis on GIS and ontologies

Helen Couclelis has a new article on ontologies of geographic information. Her position is a little different from the usual GIS “ontologies” work, and her opening paragraph is pasted below.

I see Couclelis as trying to stake out a position here which is a little more philosophically informed than other work in geotechnologies (eg the “geoinformatics” crowd). But she is still committed to a “cognitive” stance (see last sentences) and effectively tries to dodge real ontology by saying her position is neutral on whether it is veridically capturing the real world by claiming to capture “information” about the real world rather than real world entities. This still leaves a gap between “information” and “knowledge” in my opinion, ie is she really doing ontology or epistemology? Ontology is supposed to be about (the question of) being, not information. Or if you prefer a question of the conditions of possibility for knowledge, which you could say is a political question (or again, power/knowledge questions).

Her position requires an appeal to intentionality, and she couches it as “user-centric.” I think this is a good step, but there are many ways to approach this and she seems to favor the old communication model approach. This was critiqued in the 1970s by Guelke but that we all know still underlies naive representationalist GIS.

“Ontologies of geographic information.” Helen Couclelis. International Journal of GIS, 24(12), 2010. DOI: 10.1080/13658816.2010.484392.

Real-world entities are the focus of most ontologies that have been formulated to date, both generally and more specifically in the area of geographic information. Other ontologies stress cognitive representations of entities instead of the entities themselves, attempting to model the ‘world in the head’ rather than the ‘world out there.’ Distinct from but related to the latter are ontologies that model language. This article proposes a different approach whereby it is theinformation available about the world, and not the world itself (whether ‘real’ or cognized), that forms the basis of an ontological system. That system takes the form of suitably ordered and interpreted classes of observations forming a hierarchy, the levels of which are connected through a systematic generative procedure. To the extent that the observations in question may be identified with properties of specific entities of interest, the system practically reproduces the solutions proposed by several researchers of carving separable, discrete objects out of a field of properties (Kjenstad 2006, Goodchild et al2007). It is even closer to the unifying object-field formalization proposed by Voudouris (2010) in that one and the same hierarchical structure generates the equivalents of fields at the lower levels and of objects at the higher levels. The highest levels of the hierarchy are also characterized by semantics not commonly associated with geographic ontologies, comprising objects that embody the notion of intentionality. Following Searle (1983), intentionality here refers to the purposes, intentions, motivations, needs, beliefs, and so on, of an observer or a user of the system. Human intentionality seeks, selects, and sifts through information always from a particular perspective, the perspective relevant to a user. One major advantage of an ontological system based primarily if not entirely on the notion of information is that it allows such an extension into the semantics of user-centered interpretations: indeed, information is a relational concept presupposing an intelligent recipient/decoder as well as a source (Williamson 1994, Huchard et al2007). Further, the proposed system producesgeographic information constructs, not directly representations of real entities, except at the highest hierarchical level(s). As defined in this article, geographic information constructs can have richer and more flexible semantics than empirical object representations, allowing several different views of the same empirical entity to coexist and a broader range of questions in geographic information science to be explored. This also means that epistemologically, the ontology is neutral with respect to the realist/mentalist and related debates, leaving questions of the true structure of the world and of the workings of human cognition to theoretical physicists, psychologists, linguists, and philosophers. Without elevating it to the status of a metaphysical axiom, the approach is closest to the working definition given by Zeigler et al. (2000), according to whom the real world is the universe of potentially acquirable data. There is no contradiction, however, in saying that the proposed system has ‘cognition written all over it,’ as any purposeful selection and interpretation of raw data is inescapably a cognitive act.