World Flows: Mapping Global Flight Paths

Courtesy of the BBC:


Through language and discipline, we build multiple models of the world, scales of interpretation. Depending on which sphere or bubble we inhabit, we assign a centrality to that given bubble at the expense of the others. We can imagine our globe, then, as a mass living system composed of infinite bubbles – the task that we should take upon ourselves is to not necessary pop these bubbles, but blend them, unbind their arrangements and allow them to flow with ease across the smooth face of the Earth.

To compliment the above rendering of transnational flight paths, one of the essential life-veins of neoliberal globalization, the BBC has assembled five “bubbles” – an art critic, an environmentalist, an aviation consultant, a data visualization expert, and a philosopher – to each weigh in with their opinion. Its an interesting read, and one that is worth quoting:

The art critic

“It is not only dealing with two-dimensionality, it’s trying to create three dimensions, or four dimensions – giving you a notion that you are travelling across the surface of this image. It’s almost like contemporary fractalisation  – based on fractals, those beautiful divisions of science and nature. A number of artists have exploited them. Max Ernst based a lot of his surreal landscapes on fractalisation… One thing artists have to do today is keep up with contemporary visual imagery. They have to embrace modern technology… It has to be ‘of the time’ – these are of the time and beautiful abstract shapes, very sensitively done.”

The environmentalist

“When you see the three brightest patches – Europe, North America, and East Asia – you are seeing the three main focuses of aviation emissions. I am surprised that the Transatlantic flights do not show up as brighter because emissions are intense there as well. The images re-affirm what we already know. Between 1974 and 2009, cumulatively, Europe was responsible for 38% of aviation traffic, Asia/Pacific was responsible for 29%, and North America for 20%… Long-haul flights, the source of most emissions, began in the 1970s, and we see that Asia is not that far behind. Not just China, but Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, and Australasia all carry a heavy responsibility.”

The aviation consultant

“Europe looks so bright because it has so many short-haul flights. It’s also one of the busiest global markets and there are several hubs in relatively close proximity in Europe: Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and London… you can see where things are changing. Asia is really dense with flight paths. In China you have a rising middle class travelling for business and leisure. What we’re going to see in a few years is more connections between Asia and Africa, and South America and Africa, along with more ‘south-south’ trade.”

The data visualizations expert

“Visualisations like this are great. This is very clean and very simple and it gives an instant narrative. But my concern is that there’s a tendency to over-interpret these kinds of pictures. This is a snapshot. You can see the density of the flights, but it doesn’t show you how many people are travelling on them. You could do that by colouring them differently… If you were coming from another planet and you were looking at this, you might think there weren’t many people living in Africa or Latin America.”

The philosopher

“It looks like a strange life-form, like seeing translucent plankton in the sea, lighting up in certain parts… and you wonder what’s going on in the darker parts, what kind of life, or activity, is concealed. We are not seeing the life of individual human beings, but the life of the species as a whole, as if the species was one organism, pulsating like a jellyfish… In the images where the lights are denser, there is something a bit entangled and manic. It’s not completely peaceful. It’s beautiful, but when you start to look, it’s mad – a mad spider’s web, slightly psychotic.”

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