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Digital Depth

Deep Mapping and the Blue Humanities

Published onSep 08, 2021
Digital Depth

The Sumptuous Abyss: Blue and Digital Mapping

This essay is about depth as an emotional experience, its philosophical underpinnings, its meaning for blue and environmental humanists, and the implications for an understanding of writing deeply for those undertaking another form of less literal depth-plumbing, that of deep mapping. Rather than focusing on the notion of the deep map as cartography, this essay instead explores the meaning of a deep map as deep first and a map second. What element of its meaning is determined by the emotional history and future of depth, and how can this relationship help to expand the affordances of the method? Going deep requires a corresponding depth of analysis.

One way to create depth is through accreted material, a thickness of description that exists beyond the gaze and comprehension of a reader or viewer: the Deep Map. This method, coming to maturity within the digital humanities, creative arts practice and geography in equal measure, is a ‘way to engage evidence within its spatiotemporal context and to trace paths of discovery that lead to a spatial narrative and ultimately a spatial argument’.1 Its corpora are ‘greedy’, focusing on broad source material and a limited spatial area, and ingesting as much as possible to provide an in-depth view of a place, space, and identity.2 The result is ‘a rich profusion of perspectives that are … engaged with the mapping or tapping of a layered and multifaceted sense of place, narrative, history, and memory’.3 This profusion has the effect of flattening the ontologies of the map, creating a democratic and level playing field for genres of source material to cohabit.4

As the artist Clifford McLucas has famously said of deep maps, they should be big, slow, sumptuous, engaging to the insider and outsider while linking them, not dependent on the authority of conventional cartography as well as fragile, temporary and unstable.5 Most importantly, they are only possible or imaginable now. Deep mapping exists at the edge of what it is imaginable or possible to represent, a new technical and aesthetic frontier. Technologies allow new glimpses of depth, but also a greater understanding of the narrative challenges involved in the act of mapping depth in a culturally meaningful way.

A new kind of deep mapping requires a more detailed understanding not only of maps, but of the concept of depth itself. Blue Humanities deep mapping is a deep map of the deepest thing on the Earth—water and the hidden contours of the trenches, grooves, faults and rifts that it conceals. This is the zone described as Stacy Alaimo as the “Violet-Black” register of ecology:

What possibilities does this eerie and entrancing hue pose for new materialist and posthumanist ecologies of the depths? And how do the prismatic bioluminescent displays of creatures in the abyss provoke recognitions of the multitude of aquatic modes of being, communicating, and knowing? Violet-black ecologies of the abyssal zones entice us to descend, rather than transcend, to unmoor ourselves from terrestrial and humanist presumptions, as sunlight, air, and horizons disappear, replaced by dark liquid expanses and the flashing spectrum of light produced by abyssal creatures.6

The concept of excessive, invisible or incomprehensible depth is an epistemic challenge. The idea that something is deep—too deep—and recedes beyond vision, knowledge and comfort is the stuff of horror. The depths of space, the abyss of the deepest oceans, the impossible expanses within and between things that are seemingly solid. There is paranoia in depth, there is a desperate reaching for patterns, for sense, for coherence. Swimming over the inky black of a blue hole and feeling the temperature drop is a chilling experience, literally and figuratively, because it is easy to imagine that there is nothing beneath the water. Or worse, there is something, and it is beyond comprehension and impossible to apprehend. Another staple of horror.

It is understandable that an incomprehensibly deep map might provoke fear and paralysis. Where does one begin? Where does one end? Coming to terms with the fact that quantity has a quality but also an elusiveness of its own takes time. This is perhaps why deep mapping is often a method rather than a philosophy. It is exhaustive, extensive work when completed in toto, but also a valuable addition to other methods. It whispers in the background of the spatial humanities, hinting at a greater chaos at the heart of the human impulse to map. It suggests that there is a hidden reach below those swimming in familiar methodological waters, deep, terrible and full of wonders. Just was one does not need to apprehend a tesseract with human faculties to understand its value, so too can a deep map withdraw from comprehensibility and yet remain redolent of potential meaning.

This Incredible Animation Shows How Deep The Ocean Really Is

In some ways, deep mapping is a perfect expression of the positive and negative emotional valences of depth. It is rich and sumptuous in detail, deep and not superficial. It hints at exciting detail and intricacy beyond a first glance. Its internal heterogeneity, ontological flatness and complexity create a frisson of excitement. There is also an element of dread to the depth of a deep map, especially to the quantitatively minded. It is the messiest and scrappiest expression of dirty humanities data. There is a reason why lovers of the inchoate and creatively plural—artists, poets, literary critics—are drawn to the deep map. It is profound and exciting. To those who wish to make data orderly and useful, deep maps are a nightmare. They are always already incomplete, treat ends with contempt, scoff at authority and refuse regimes of consistent navigation.

The depth in deep mapping matters because it is confusing and often intimidating. A deep map is obviously filled with meaning, but it withdraws from comprehensive understanding. It seethes with a kind of nothingness in potentia, the absence of something that does not make itself amenable to meaning. A thousand journeys through a deep map can yield a thousand different experiences, and yet none are the deep map itself. Ecotheorist Timothy Morton describes this phenomenon well: not nothingness, but a lacuna caused by the superabundance of somethingness:

Nothingness, rather than absolutely nothing: and this nothingness pervades things like myriad cracks in the shell of a boiled egg. Because a thing withdraws, it disturbs us with an excess over what we can know or say about it, or what anything can know or say about it—this excess is a nothingness, not absolutely nothing, but not something to which one can point. If we could point it out, it would be right there, and we would know it—but the withdrawal of a thing cannot be located anywhere on its surface or in its depth.7

Deep Maps withdraw like any vast object withdraws and projects an absence into the world of human sense-making. They are not absolutely nothing: in fact, they are filled with an endless and incalculable depth of something. Like the ocean, they hide beautiful realities beneath their impenetrable unknowable exteriors, but a something that is an excess, a superabundance, an uneasy and sickening vastness beyond what can be seen. We can technically describe the sum total of a deep map, and it is right there for us to understand. Yet this description is not the source of the depth in a deep map. It exists in potential, and in withdrawal.

Another Dimension

A useful analogy is to describe a deep map as having properties or dimensions beyond human apprehension. A tesseract, for example: a four-dimensional cube with a mathematical reality, and yet a human eye and human mind is incapable of understanding its dimensions because they exist beyond its faculties. A four-dimension object is seething with nothingness to the human mind caused by its incomprehensible excesses, and yet if you describe its mathematical properties, then there it is. The eye sees simple actions like motion and rotation as a confusing amorphous mass. And yet within that mass is a series of planes that can be understood objectively, manipulated and rearranged. A deep map is to a map what a tesseract is to a cube, just as a map is to a set of written directions what a cube is to a square: just because it is confusing does not mean that its depth is not meaningful.

Depth is a hard concept to quantify with human senses even if it has an objective extent. It is a knowable measurement—every three-dimensional entity has a depth—but also an abstract quality. Depth is often an abstraction to the human observer, its reality unknown. The suggestion of depth creates a sense of awe and fear. Space is deep, the ocean is deep, the hidden reality of what lurks in darkness, the fuel of psychological horror—is underpinned by the inability to determine depth. The object that we cannot comprehend the true magnitude of—the university itself—is an expression of absolute depth. Its extent is so far beyond our knowledge that it cannot be grasped. Like the extra dimension in a tesseract, a deep map adds another layer of qualities to depth that boggles the mind, but also provides endless opportunity. The depth of a deep mapping is another dimension within the map.


For blue deep mapping, two genres of depth combine. Water is deep in a way that speaks to ancient fears, and a deep map is equally hard to fathom. The process of finding storytelling modes that truly engage with the depth of water and its complicated dance with land are labours of depth-love. For this reason, those who are attracted to both the blue humanities and to deep mapping tend to be lovers of both complexity and incompleteness. It is laughable to totalise the ocean, a river, a lake. It is equally difficult to imagine a deep map that is complete. Both benefit from a light hand, drawing from a variety of source corpora of varying degrees of completeness to weave together stories. Even the most quantitative of blue humanities studies must come to terms with the lacuna between the story that data tells and the more-than-human reality of the complexities surrounding the data. Coherent narratives emerge, but through a mixed method collection of methods. Once complete, these accounts are absorbed into a greater whole deeper than their remit.

There is a great deal that can be known—quantitatively speaking—about water, and yet these conclusions clash with very human conceptual limits such as imagining the ocean as finite, imagining the slow creep of sea levels rising, seeing beyond the shifting baseline of the present to see change beyond human temporalities. Marine science and oceanography can tell us that a phenomenon exists on a large scale and change our way of imagining the world and acting withing it, but it still struggles with the more-than-human interactions, second by second, that are behind the oceans and other complex participants in the global hydrological cycle. Grasping the inscrutable lives of hyper objects is beyond the remit of visualisation and data analyses alone. It is a story that must be lived and navigated in all of its complexity. Deep maps accept that the bottom of the deeps are unknown, and that we exist in the shallows of knowledge. It generates a chaos that alarms and reassures because it is true to life. It is not a master narrative or even a collection of narratives, but a machine for emulating the incoherence of the world as experienced through human epistemology.

What can the blue humanities learn from deep mapping? First and foremost, it provides an opportunity to enthusiastically embrace the inherent contradictions of the ocean. Secondly, it allows enthusiastic adoption of non-linear movements through material, a Kamau Brathwaite tidalectic rather than a Socratic dialectic. It allows for a vision of the sea as home and not alien, seas of islands not islands in the sea, to quote Epeli Hau’ofa. It reminds us that claims to absolute authority and neat conclusion are delusions, that the quantification and utilitarian demarcation of the blue world is a delusion of human control. It reminds us both of why humans are right to fear water, and why they are simultaneously right to love it. It reminds us that the world is a cluster of fierce problems and contradictions that cannot be solved, only explored.

Hyper objects like the ocean share a kinship with four-dimensional objects such as a tesseract in that their reality is incomprehensible. They exist at an extend and at an ontological depth that is simply impossible to grasp. A great many of the plagues of the Anthropocene arise from this fundamental incompatibility. Although knowledge—and a great deal of knowledge—is possible, some things lie beyond. The deep map is an expression of the chaos beyond comprehension, the complexity of the indeterminate, of stories that are told at scales beyond the teller’s ability to express.

Deep mapping is essential to the study of the blue humanities because it is a methodology as memento mori. It reminds the researcher that their knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, but that this is a source of excitement rather than frustration. By drawing together strands of deep narrative and telling dynamic and ever-changing stories of them, the deep mapper is embracing and celebrating the possibilities of embracing chaotic knowledge, and the stories that bring a larger sense of meaning in unprecedented times.

An interesting way to reconcile depths might be to wholly eschew the conventional cartographic norms of a deep map and explore it on a vertical plane. Deep mapping the Challenger Deep based on a cloud of incomplete knowledge would not be deep in the sense that it could ever capture more than a fraction of its subject matter, but it would be a wedding of two genres of depth in a single project. 3D mapping and visualisation combined with maps of the sea bed could be combined with a vertical axis moving ever-deeper into the map, providing both a sense of blue depth, but also the profound narrative thickness of even the more poorly-understood parts of the planet. In a space where comprehensive and quantitative methods of storytelling fail, only deep mapping can truly channel the sense of dread, vastness, wonder and pluripotent narrative that a deep map is capable of. The questions asked of deep maps can then become a narrative bathysphere - well-designed and sturdy enough for the task, but only capable of entering the depths and not truly knowing them.

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