Navigation in the Information Age:
Potential Use of GIS for Sustainability and Self-Determination in Hawai`i
Cogswell and Schiøtz, 1996



It is obvious that the existing political and economic system, aside from being illegal, is not working well in terms of real meaningful values, such as our quality of life and the sustainability of our environment. Discontent with the government is at an all time high, and a feeling of being out of control of the decisions which affect our lives and lands is rampant, both at a state and federal level. If we keep going in the same direction, we'll certainly end up where we're headed, which would be most unfortunate.

Our society, here in Hawai`i and globally, is not living in anywhere near a sustainable manner, and an evolution of values and visions is essential for the quality of our future. So we are in for a change, and we must be ready to create a positive change, before economic and environmental circumstances force us into a more drastic negative one. We must collectively empower a form of self government that works in a real way, with humanity's laws in deep alignment with the natural and spiritual laws that are the basis for our very existence.

If there is any place in the world capable of evolving politically, economically, culturally, and spiritually in a smooth and peaceful transition toward a truly equitable and sustainable future, it is Hawai`i. In the process, we will be an example for the entire world.

(Pu'uhonua Kanahele, Interim Head of State of the Nation of Hawai`i, 1995: from the Nation of Hawai`i's Web Page)


1.0   Introduction

In this era of increasingly rapid technological change, some have called it ironic that indigenous peoples would utilize advanced technologies to make more compelling land claims, coordinate information about their land and resources, create stronger communities and even regenerate their cultures, after hundreds of years of genocide and exploitation by `advanced technological societies' (Sheppard, 1995; Weiner, 1995; Poole, 1995). Yet, today, indigenous peoples' use of the Internet, World Wide Web (WWW), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and other information technologies is significant and increasing, as these people explore different potential avenues toward the realization of their goals. In Hawai`i, the "Nation of Hawai`i" sovereignty group has made extensive use of information technologies to communicate, to do research, and to gain legitimacy. "The Nation" is currently in the initial stages of exploring the creation of a next-generation GIS for the ultimate self-determination and sustainable management of the Hawaiian archipelago by an independent Hawaiian nation.

This thesis research was initiated at the invitation of the primary GIS developer and technology advisor for the Nation of Hawai`i. The purpose of our research was to explore how GIS could be used as a tool for self-determination and sustainability by a sovereign Hawaiian nation. Our research process has included three phases. First, we explored the initial development of the Nation's own GIS initiative, in Los Angeles. Second, we began an investigation of the relevant use of GIS in Hawai`i. Third, we contextualized the study by examining more general tendencies of GIS use for social empowerment and social control in a broader context.

We determined that previous research on GIS had been almost exclusively focused on the design, implementation, and utilization of GIS with respect to the technology and its users. Until recently there has been almost no exploration of the larger implications of GIS technology either by researchers, developers, or users. From indigenous people and their supporters we learned that as a group, in choosing a GIS they are often left to sort out the promises and rhetoric around GIS for themselves.

The Nation of Hawai`i has emphasized that it wants to utilize new technologies to empower those who represent the ancient culture of Hawai`i, in the most responsible and wisest ways. We suggest that the "good news" for the Nation is that by building a system from the ground up, an extraordinary opportunity exists to take advantage of the wisdom of past successes, failures, and varied consequences of decades of GIS design and use. However, we suggest that the "bad news" is that this wisdom is only just emerging, and is only now beginning to be written and shared. We feel that there is not just a gap, but in fact a canyon in the literature and knowledge landscape, which demands immediate, interdisciplinary and systematic exploration and redress. We intend for this thesis to contribute to the accumulation of such wisdom, in service to the Nation of Hawai`i, applied anthropology, and a more sustainable world.


1.1   Hawaiian Context

This study is grounded in the understanding that the people of the Hawaiian archipelago, the most remote island system in the world, existed in self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability before Europeans arrived, supporting a population nearly equal to the present 1.2 million people. Today Hawai`i is experiencing serious challenges and transitions - after 200 years of European colonization, only a small percentage of the full-blood Hawaiian population remains. Vast ecological degradation has occurred, it is dependent on the import of most of its food and energy, and has been added to the territory of a nation whose army occupies 25% of its land mass, and governs from a capital located over 5,000 miles away. A vocal movement for sovereignty has emerged, and is demanding radical changes: one of the most prominent groups working for sovereignty, called the "Nation of Hawai`i," considers the State of Hawai`i to be an illegal occupying force, and has as its goal complete sovereignty and self-determination for Hawai`i's inhabitants. The Nation of Hawai`i has from its beginning investigated and implemented technologies to support the essence of its work; GIS is now being explored as a powerful tool which may assist the cause of Hawaiian sovereignty.


1.2   What is Known about GIS?

Conceptually, a Geographic Information System (GIS) can be understood to be in some ways a computerized evolution of the traditional cartographic map. A GIS is a computer system consisting of hardware and software that can assemble, store, integrate, manipulate, forecast, recontextualize and display large amounts of digitized data identified according to geographic location. While paper maps remain useful and utilized, the "information revolution" has allowed information to be treated in new ways, and GIS are one of these ways.

Geographic Information Systems' new capabilities are based first on the digitization of spatial information which allows for the manipulation, analysis, update, and quick recall of geospatial information; second, GIS' ability to be utilized on personal computers allows an increasing number of people to both have access to large amounts of geospatial information, and the capability to become "instant mapmakers;" third, GIS' ability to show relationships between layers or categories of information (i.e. waste management, rainfall, population, agriculture, native fishponds, religious practices, etc.) may provide a significant tool that can display, model, and analyze events and situations with enough processing power and comprehensivity to address complex environmental, social and economic challenges of our age.

GIS is an important tool for planning which Scholten (1990) asserts is often used to mediate the multiple perspectives and conflicts "that arise because of the increasing demands for space from competing interests which typically include agriculture, housing, the manufacturing and service industry, commercial property, public infrastructure and recreation" (Scholten, 1990: 3). A GIS generally has the ability to makes obtuse statistical and progression-based information clearer, because it engages as the principal ingredient of conveyance something with which many human beings are familiar: maps, and how they represent a physical place (Scholten, 1990; Aberley, 1991; Cultural Survival Quarterly, 1995).

Coming into widespread use only in the last decade, GIS now represents a multi-billion dollar global industry, and systems are being used by various levels of government (land management, geological surveys, defense mapping, tax assessment, transportation planning, emergency, water etc.); business (oil/gas companies, forestry, mining, marketing, distribution, telephone, gas, cable TV etc.); academia (libraries, planning, archaeology, geography); community and ecological groups (health risk assessment, water quality management monitoring); and indigenous people (land claims settlements, water rights, resource management, among many others). However, while many varied claims are being made about the potential applications of GIS by this global industry and its supporters, most focused GIS research to date has been on the creation, use, and management of GIS projects, and has ignored the larger social, political, philosophical and ethical implications of the technology's use.


1.3   The Power of Maps and GIS

Our central theoretical orientation challenges the traditional view of the western map by questioning its claim to be scientific, objective, and neutral, and thus its claim to be a mirror for nature. The eminent cartographer Brian Harley sounded an early call to look at maps critically, and represents our perspective and an important body of literature when he writes, "Cartography ... is never merely the drawing of maps; it is the making of worlds" (Harley, 1990: 16). Harley asserts that maps generally reflect the culture in which they were created, though in the Western world they generally hide this fact: "In the map itself, social structures are often disguised beneath an abstract, instrumental space, or incarcerated in the coordinates of computer mapping" (Ibid: 5). This revisionist approach views maps as selectively constructing a particular picture of, and having definite effects in, the world. It also helps us to perceive clearly the significant role maps have played in the development of the Western world; how they have supported empire expansion, resource exploitation, and social control. Harley has pointed out that "Maps are preeminently a language of power, not protest" (Harley, 1988: 301).

Our research builds on this recently emergent perspective and at the same time explores the potential of maps for social empowerment, sustainable management, and preserving and expressing local knowledge. Given the traditional use of maps by the powerful for increasing their power, the ability for marginalized groups to use maps for social empowerment and related purposes is a significant historical change, and does not just allow new maps to be made, but also allows old maps to be challenged. In Maps are Territories, Turnbull (1993) writes at length about the many powers of maps: "Maps, like theories, have power in virtue of introducing modes of reality in themselves and can only be challenged through the production of other maps or theories" (Turnbull, 1992: 59).

GIS promise to have as much of an impact on humanity as the traditional cartographic map for many reasons which we will explore in this thesis. If two dimensional paper maps can "introduce modes of reality" for good and ill, then what potential have computerized maps in simulated three (or four) dimensions and full color? Hall is one of the most articulate authors on the power of maps in a historical and modern context.

We need to view maps warily. We must see not only the information they purvey, but the biases they may conceal, the ideologies they may preserve, and the abuses they may invite. We must not simply be dazzled by the technology, dazzling though it arguably is, but be ever aware of the map's inherent fallibility. A healthy distrust of maps may be as essential to our survival and well-being as maps themselves undeniably are. (Hall 1992: 402)

Recently emerging research has begun to explore how GIS, in the tradition of cartographic maps, are being used as tools for surveillance, recreation of consumer behavior and identity, reproduction of the status quo power structure, and tyrannical knowledge representation, as well as how they are being used for social empowerment, for assisting sustainable policy formation, and increasing the potential for participatory democracy and self-determination by various communities, including indigenous peoples. Our research takes up the challenge by Hall, Harley, Sheppard, and others to view maps and GIS as powerful and even essential tools, while maintaining a high level of critical reflection regarding of their numerous consequences and potentials.


1.4   Overall Context

Our research project is taking place within a significant transformation of Western society, which is catalyzing the asking of new questions, and the seeking of new maps and guidance to navigate in an age characterized by increasing uncertainty. In her book on technology and indigenous people, Schoenhoff comments on our times by quoting the futurist John Naisbitt:

We are living in the time of the Parenthesis, the time between eras ... Although the time between eras is uncertain, it is a great and yeasty time, filled with opportunity. If we can learn to make uncertainty our friend, we can achieve more than in stable eras. In stable eras, everything has a name and everything knows its place, and we can leverage very little.

But in the time of the Parenthesis, we have extraordinary leverage and influence - individually, professionally, and institutionally - if we can only get a clear sense, a clear conception, a clear vision, of the road ahead.... (Schoenhoff 1990: ix)

As Naisbitt suggests, we are living in a time in which good navigation is desperately needed. As we will describe, maps have played a significant role in describing distant landscapes, as extensions of our minds, in piecing together information leading to patterns and new ideas, and helping people know themselves and their world.... Hall speaks about maps as "the launching pad for the imagination" , and as "a game board upon which human destinies are played out; where winning or losing determines the survival of ideas, cultures, and sometimes entire civilizations" (Hall, 1992: 20, 371). We will describe the role maps have played both in the empowerment and control of people, and the potentials and consequences this suggests for recent computerized mapping technologies.

One of the primary motivations we have had in pursuing this project has been to gain a greater understanding of the nature of the challenges humanity and the biosphere face in a local, varied context, and to explore potential avenues for resolution of these challenges. Can GIS be a useful tool for navigation of this most unprecedented time?

We are deeply concerned about the quality of our future children's lives on Earth, and this constantly inspires our exploration of new tools and insights which could bring greater clarity to our perception of the present, and which could create openings into the radical change we feel is necessary to achieve a balance between humans and "nature." We find ourselves repeating certain questions to each other, such as "what actions or non-actions are most appropriate in our present situation?" CIIS anthropology professor Matthew Bronson articulates our considerations with clarity in the following question:

What is fundamentally being asked of us as scholars and human scientists on the brink of this new century is: 'How do we provide adequate maps, tools, technologies in support of those radical realignments in life strategies demanded for the continued viability of life on our planet?' (Bronson, 1992: 9)

The presumption that GIS can provide a tool and offer maps for nothing less than an realignment of our societal organization is based in many ways on the power of the computer, and the inherent intricacy of ecological processes: "Renee Dubos, the renowned biologist and philosopher, said that `ecology may be more complex than the human mind can understand.' That may be true, but now, with the computer and the growing body of knowledge we have to work with, we can at least begin to think more ecologically than we have been able to in the past" (Johnson, 1994: 2). The prospect of increased understanding and support of ecological awareness was a key motivating force of our initial interest in GIS. We asked, "Can this technology provide human beings with an expanded sense of ecological awareness to support substantial change at this tumultuous time on the planet?"

With regards to our work together as co-researchers, we have found that as our studies progressed it became more and more obvious that exploring ecological awareness and sustainable practice is fundamentally benefited by a collaborative approach. We realized that our research could create a stronger thesis by working as a research team, feeling that together we were greater than the sum of our parts. We felt that as an American and a Dane, we could constructively challenge each other's biases and create significant synergy, even as we learned together and each had our biases challenged in the field.

Many engaged social science projects study the affects of an action, project or policy that has already been implemented. We have had the privilege and luxury of working with an endeavor at its most embryonic stages, and then exploring a larger topical and geographical context, for the purpose of offering reflections to influence the further development of the initiative. In essence we are being asked - "If you were building a comprehensive GIS for sustainable management of a new nation - what would you take into consideration in order to create the very best system possible?"

We feel grateful for the opportunity to delve into a subject so personally fascinating and politically relevant, yet acknowledge that our work only covers the initial stages of a much larger undertaking. Still, what follows will possibly stretch imaginations and challenge preconceptions as we do paint a picture of some potentially new material. Our imaginations have certainly been stretched and expanded, and we hope that this research will prove useful, and raise relevant questions and directions for further exploration.

We begin this paper with a discussion of our theoretical orientation and a review of the relevant literature, focusing on the power of maps and the social implications of GIS. We then discuss our methodological process and the nature of qualitative research, and follow this with an elaboration of the relevant personal context of our work. This is followed by a brief exploration into the history of western mapping, an introduction to Polynesian navigation, a short history of GIS, and a look at relevant examples of the use of GIS for sustainability and self-determination by indigenous people. Finally, we relate our ethnographic experiences with the Nation of Hawai`i in Los Angeles and in Hawai`i, explore the larger context of GIS in Hawai`i, present our conclusions, and then make several focused recommendations to the Nation of Hawai`i.


1.5   Intentions of Research

We intend to do three things with our thesis:

  1. To offer the results of our inquiry to the Nation of Hawai`i, that it may make the most beneficial use of GIS possible. We also hope that the Nation will deem this research worthy to be put, in part or whole, on their acclaimed Web site, that it may be considered by other indigenous groups and interested people.

  2. To explore through participant observation the relevance of the socio-cultural implications of GIS, and to contribute these explorations to interested academic disciplines.

  3. To contribute to the dialogue, in anthropology at large and in our Social and Cultural Anthropology department at the California Institute of Integral Studies, on the power of maps and emerging information technologies such as GIS, and of the importance of further anthropological study of these subjects.