2012 URISA Track, Object-Oriented GIS: A Flat Ontology of Pixels, Charlie Jackson


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This project attempts to bring about an object-oriented position toward pixels of all kinds consistent with more than a decade of development of object-oriented philosophy and the more recent and varied object-oriented ontology (OOO). For decades, spectral pixels have retained an ostensibly privileged status in remote sensing science. More specifically, scientific materialism and two of object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman's seven “radical” approaches to objects have characterized digital remote sensing science since its advent. That is, by denying both the distinction between an object and its qualities and the difference between an object and its accidents, the spectral pixel is regarded as directly representative of remotely sensed objects. Spectral data is therefore reduced to the 'actual' or 'existing'. The non-spectral, on the other hand, is often relegated to the modeling domain of the ‘potential’ where uncertainty is thought to prevail. Furthermore, non-spectral data layers are still habitually referred to as 'ancillary' and often receive short shrift in the literature. This project is a mereological approach to topographically complex landscapes. By first classifying DEM derived land-surface parameters as ecologically relevant objects, those objects then become the component parts and ultimately, the qualities of unified chorological objects segmented with eCognition™. Not only are these objects irreducible to their component parts, they are capable of being directly experienced and empirically investigated. This project thereby introduces a realist ontology and inter-objectivity to remote sensing science that should enable any GIS to better confront the complex multi-scale problems of the next few decades of unprecedented change.

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2012 URISA Track, Object-Oriented GIS: A Flat Ontology of Pixels, Charlie Jackson

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  2. 2. “…let ‘ontology’ refer to a description of the basic structural features shared by allobjects, and let ‘metaphysics’ signify the discussion of the fundamental traits ofspecific types of entities…Any type of object distinct from others, however hazy theboundaries may be, can become the subject of metaphysics” (Harman, 2007). 2
  3. 3. “When the phrase ‘flat ontology’ was used by Roy Bhaskar in the early 1970s in hisbook on the realist theory of science, it was a polemical term. Namely, he used it torefer to theories that flatten the world into its accessibility to human observers; itwas a dismissive phrase aimed at positivism, not a flattering description of realism.The meaning of the phrase was reversed in 2006 by Bhaskar’s admirer ManuelDeLanda. For DeLanda, ‘flat ontology’ simply means that all entities must be treatedalike. That is to say, it is an anti-reductionist term, such that armies, cities, and herdsof cattle might be just as real as steel girders and atoms of potassium. ‘Flat’ has nowreversed its meaning: rather than referring to a world without levels in whicheverything inhabits the realm of human consciousness, it means instead a world inwhich all levels are on the same playing field” (Harman, 2011a).“…atoms have no more reality than grain markets or sports franchises” (Harman,2008a). 3
  4. 4. The “first occurrence of the phrase ‘object-oriented philosophy’” was the title ofHarman’s September 11, 1999 lecture at Brunel University in Uxbridge, England(Harman, 2010a).(Interestingly enough, the image segmentation software eCognition™ becamecommercially available the following year.)In 2002, Harman and Manuel DeLanda were the only “admitted realists” among the“continentally inspired philosophers” (Harman, 2008a & 20010a).“Despite the claims of empiricism, I have no direct contact with sensual qualities atall. For precisely this is the meaning of Husserl’s great discovery: I never encounterblack as an isolated quality, but only as the black of ink or poison, a black infused withthe style of these objects. In this way sensual objects serve as the bridge betweentheir diverse sensual qualities” (Harman, 2011b).“But this is precisely the model of perception that Husserl rightly rejects…One canwell imagine a science fiction tale in which the narrator’s visual experiencedecomposes horrifically into autonomous dots, as in the pointillist paintings ofGeorges Seurat. But neither I, nor the reader, nor David Hume himself everexperienced such a nightmarish world. The very suggestion is anything but empirical:it is based on a sensationalist ideology not ratified by the experience of any living 4
  5. 5. creature” (Harman, 2008b). 4
  6. 6. “Intentionality is not a special human property at all, but an ontological feature ofobjects in general” (Harman, 2007).“The only form of direct contact we know so far is between the real object thatexperiences the world and the various sensual objects it encounters” (Harman,2011b).Interobjectivity: “Reason alone tells us…that it is not some special human curse topossess flawed models of other things. Rather, even the most brute form of causalinteraction will not be able to grasp the things themselves...It is relationality per se,not human psychology, that fails to translate reality adequately”(http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2010/01/08/objects-and-reduction/). 5
  7. 7. The diagram I drew while reading Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics(2008) during the summer of 2011…shortly before Harman published his own in TheQuadruple Object (2011).Sensual qualities and how they “serve two masters, like moons orbiting two planetsat the same time: one visible and the other invisible” is readily seen here (Harman,2011b). 6
  8. 8. Undermining: monism, virtual philosophies of the pre-individual, and processphilosophies (e.g., the current and prevalent notions of ecology and geomorphology)Overmining: empiricism, correlationism, relationism, and idealism“In this respect, materialism is the hereditary enemy of any object-orientedphilosophy” (Harman, 2011b).“And finally, to attack the replacement of metaphysics by science is often mistakenfor an attack on science itself, and the indifference to science by the past century ofcontinental philosophy is too regrettable to deserve even a hint of endorsement”(Harman, 2010b). 7
  9. 9. David Hume “famously denies that an object exists as anything more than a bundle ofqualities habitually linked together by the mind” (Harman, 2008b).“This is similar to Point 4 about accidents, but refers to the level of reality itself ratherthan that of qualities experienced by the mind” (Harman, 2008b).Taxonomic essentialism…reified generalities and how it differs from object-oriented‘essence’. 8
  10. 10. Thought experiment: Imagine the possibility, however unlikely, for ageomorphometric landform or landform element to conform to an existing landformor landform element that does not have even one pixel in the DEM from which it wasderived with an accurate elevation value. 9
  11. 11. (And Timothy Morton’s ‘temporary autonomous zones’ (Morton, 2011)!) 10
  12. 12. The TRMI as seen in El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico whileconducting the accuracy assessment of a detailed vegetation map.Ridge orientation and slope aspects: a piñon-juniper woodland occupies the xericslope of northwest aspect (left) and an open Ponderosa pine parkland occupies themesic NNE slope of the volcanic crater (right). 11
  13. 13. The four component parts of the TRMI and the increase in the number of possiblelandform objects in the geomorphometric TRMI.Why the TRMI?• Easily understood and implemented in the field• An effective moisture index ranging from 0 (xeric) to 60 (mesic), or 0 to 58 in the case of the geomorphometric TRMI presented here• The geomorphometric TRMI is decomposable and inherently multiscaled• Because it uses a simple overlay to integrate its component parts, the geomorphometric TRMI does not propagate DEM errorsWhy not the more fashionable TWI?• The TWI propagates DEM errors (Van Niel et al., 2004)• No thermal component, therefore, it is often coupled with solar insolation• It cannot be implemented in the fieldWhy has the TRMI been habitually abandoned (e.g., Alan Taylor & SolomonDobrowski)?Parker’s slope aspect can be incorporated into the segmentation process, whereasthe traditional (and anthropocentric!) azimuthal aspect cannot (Drăguţ & Blaschke,2006). 12
  14. 14. The following five geomorphometric TRMI layers were generated from a USGSNational Elevation Dataset (NED) 1/3 Arc Second DEM of Guadalupe MountainsNational Park (GUMO) in west Texas. 13
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  16. 16. The fD8 multiple flow direction (MFD) algorithm and a channel initiation thresholdwere used in TAS and Whitebox GAT(http://www.uoguelph.ca/~hydrogeo/Whitebox/) to generate this hydro-geomorphictopographic position layer. 15
  17. 17. The nine possible slope configurations, including the four deemed ecologicallyirrelevant (and extremely difficult to account for in the field) by Parker when hecreated the index thirty years ago, are now included in the segmentation of theseecologically relevant ‘chorologic’ objects. 16
  18. 18. A focal mean of the geomorphometric TRMI (shown here) instantiates the horizontalcoupling of the individual thermal/hydro-geomorphic TRMI pixels.The previous four component parts and the final TRMI have been put on the samefooting for this segmentation. That is, they receive equal weights during thesegmentation performed by eCognition™.And because the remaining steep gradients between classes (topographic position &slope configuration) have been removed, no object is overdetermined orunderdetermined by any one of its components.Of all the segmentations carried out thus far, this particular segmentation (scaleparameter: 4; shape: 0.1; compactness: 0.7) produced the lowest standard deviationsfor each of the four component parts of the TRMI. 17
  19. 19. These classified objects are now ready to be “encrusted” with surface accidents, i.e.,spectral pixels of any spatial and spectral resolution (in this case, a high resolutioncolor IR image).Further segmentations of these classified and ecologically relevant geomorphicobjects are now possible.In addition, almost any so-called DEM “infidelities” can be mitigated using spectral“encrustations” of this sort. 18
  20. 20. Why QOBIA?What would a QOBIA entail?Why not OBIA and/or GEOBIA? 19
  21. 21. 20
  22. 22. “Figure 8. Knowledge and Belief are distinct because the theoretical argumentradically separates the fabrication (top) from its result (bottom), and because itconsiders in Knowledge only the bottom left and in the Belief only in the top right(the two empty rectangles)” (Latour, 2010).…On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2010)The three sources of iconoclash: religion, science, and art (Latour, 2010).( What is iconoclash? It is “that which happens when there is uncertainty about theexact role of the hand at work in the production of a mediator” (Latour, 2010).)“But what is one to make of scientific images in this context? Surely, these offer cold,unmediated, objective representations of the world, and thus cannot trigger thesame passion and frenzy as the religious pictures. Contrary to the religious ones, theysimply describe the world in a way that can be proven true or false. Precisely becausethey are cool, fresh, verifiable, and largely undisputed, they are the objects of a rareand almost universal agreement. So the pattern of confidence, belief, rejection, andspite is entirely different for them than the one generated by idols or icons. This iswhy they offer different sorts of iconoclashes. To begin with, for most people, they are not even images, but the world itself.There is nothing to say about them but to learn their message. To call them image, 21
  23. 23. inscription, or representation, to have them exposed in an exhibition side by sidewith religious icons, is already an iconoclastic gesture. If those are mererepresentations of galaxies, atoms, light, or genes, then one could say indignantly,‘they are not real, they have been fabricated.’ And yet, as will be made apparent here,it slowly becomes clearer that without huge and costly instruments, large groups ofscientists, vast amounts of money, and long training, nothing would be visible in suchimages. It is because of so many mediations that they are able to be so objectivelytrue. Here is another iconoclash, exactly opposite of the one raised by the worship ofreligious image-destruction: the more instruments, the more mediation, the betterthe grasp of reality…So the pattern of interference may allow us to rejuvenate ourunderstanding of image making: the more human-made images are generated, themore objectivity will be collected. In science, there is no such thing as mererepresentation” (Latour, 2010). 21
  24. 24. “Figure 9. In actual practice the fabrication is no longer denied, and the questionshifts to the quality of the fabrication both for fetishes and for facts” (Latour, 2010). 22
  25. 25. The speculative materialist Quentin Meillassoux is, of course, speaking of thetranscendental revolution when he says “From this point on,” but by simply replacingintersubjectivity with the interobjectivity of object-oriented ontology (OOO) we canclearly see how a realist object-oriented metaphysics can inform science, geography,and GIS…from this point on. 23
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  27. 27. BibliographyBhaskar, R. (1975). A realist theory of science. London: Verso.DeLanda, M. (2006). A new philosophy of society: Assemblage theory and social complexity. London: Continuum.DeLanda, M. (2010). Deleuze: History and science. New York: Atropos Press.Drăguţ, L., Blaschke, T. (2006). Automated classification of landform elements using object-based image analysis. Geomorphology. 81. 330-344.Harman, G. (2005). Guerrilla metaphysics. Chicago: Open Court.Harman, G. (2007). On vicarious causation. Collapse, II, 187-221.Harman, G. (2008a). DeLanda’s ontology: Assemblage and realism. Cont. Philos. Rev. 41. 367-383.Harman, G. (2008b). The prince of networks: Bruno Latour and metaphysics. Melbourne: re.press. 25
  28. 28. Harman, G. (2010a). Towards speculative realism: essays and lectures. Winchester: Zero Books.Harman, G. (2010b). I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 28.5. 772-790.Harman, G. (2010c). Time, space, essence, and eidos: A new theory of causation. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy. 6.1. 1-17.Harman, G. (2011a). The road to objects. Continent. 1.3. 171-179.Harman, G. (20011b). The quadruple object. Winchester: Zero Books.Latour, B. (1987). Science in action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.Meillassoux, Q. (2008). After finitude: An essay on the necessity of contingency. London: Continuum.Morton, T. (2011). Objects as temporary autonomous zones. Continent. 1.3. 149-155.Morton, T. (2007). Ecology without nature: Rethinking environmental aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Parker, A.J. (1982). The topographic relative moisture index: An approach to soil moisture assessment in mountain terrain. Physical Geography. 3. 160-168.Van Niel, K., Laffan, S., Lees, B. (2004). Effect of error in the DEM on environmental variables for predictive vegetation modelling. Journal of Vegetation Science. 15. 747-756. 25