Emotional Connections

What is globalization? Most answers lead quickly to abstractions about trade, finance and the movement of people. Carlo Ratti, by contrast, has come up with something far more concrete. Working with data from AT&T, the U.S. telecommunications operator, Ratti and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed luminous and fluctuating maps that show how international phone calls and data traffic travel between New York and more than 200 countries. "It's like having a real-time view of globalization," says Ratti, who directs mapping research at MIT. Phone calls and data flows are good indicators of how the world is organizing itself.

The wall-size maps, on display at New York's Museum of Modern Art, are "as engaging as a good movie," says curator Paola Antonelli. (The maps, called "New York Time Exchange," are part of an exhibition entitled "Design and the Elastic Mind," which runs through May 12.) As flows of telecommunications data change, arcs of light, glowing dots and landmasses expand and shrink. (The maps aren't quite in real time: data are delayed for two hours for technical reasons.) The result is a vivid and emotional picture of a united world. The information may also yield insights into social patterns.

On one map, regions expand as the number of phone connections with New York increases. This reveals a global pecking order of sorts: when it is day in New York, callers in other time zones get up very early, or stay up very late, to talk to the Big Apple. But the reverse isn't true; the world accommodates New York, but New Yorkers don't accommodate the world. "It's as if these [time-zone] lines get distorted and bend inwards into the city of New York," says Kristian Kloeckl, project leader at MIT's SENSEable City Laboratory, which designed the maps.

The maps are not pure art, but part of ongoing research into how the world exchanges data. MIT researchers studied British Telecom data to gauge, among other things, the influence of New York with that of rival London (the BT data were not mapped). MIT's findings? New York has more telephone contact than London not just with Latin America, as was expected, but also with Asia. This shows up as more calls and more minutes connected, even for certain parts of the Middle East—including Riyadh—despite the greater time difference. Saskia Sassen, a globalization sociologist at New York's Columbia University who was privy to the BT data, refers to these mapped phone calls as "a geography of power." She notes that tallies of international phone calls is a good approximate measure of globalization. Unlike statistics that measure high-level economic activity such as foreign investment, telephony also captures global interactions among people in lower socioeconomic groups, such as poor immigrants, thus giving a more complete picture of overall activity.

MIT's approach to mapping live data may appeal to audiences beyond museum-goers. Maps of telecommunications would come in handy for the airline industry, which is always looking for ways to better understand the degree of "connectedness" between cities. At present, to gauge the potential profitability of a route, airlines rely essentially on passenger records from other flights. Knowing how much talking "connects" any two cities would be "incredibly helpful" to route planners who must estimate the number of likely passengers, says Jon Woolf, senior consultant at ASM, an airline-route consultancy in Manchester, UK.

The local detail provided in the maps is another potential treasure trove of information. The MIT charts break down AT&T phone traffic at 100 points, or "switches," throughout New York. (No information is provided that could link individuals to phone calls.) This breakdown allows for a high level of detail—down to the neighborhood—which would be useful to advertisers or political campaign operatives. A speechwriter whose candidate will be stumping in Flushing, Queens, might want to know that 10 percent of international calls placed from the neighborhood connect with Seoul, South Korea.

Globalization's losers also stand out starkly on MIT's maps. A glance shows that the information age has left much of Africa behind: few of the gold arcs representing intense Internet traffic touch the continent. Jagdish Bhagwati, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York who has served as an adviser on globalization to the United Nations, says a well-developed telecommunications infrastructure and culture can help nudge populations in the developing world toward wealth but also democracy. When people are able to communicate wide and far and access information online, they see themselves as empowered stakeholders in a society that they can improve, Bhagwati says. Phone networks in particular are powerful tools for democracy and modernity because immigrants call loved ones abroad to deliver eyewitness reports, unfiltered by the media, of new ways of living.

MIT's maps are a poignant reminder that humanity has never been so connected. William Mitchell, a professor at MIT's Media Lab who advised the researchers, says the "tremendous emotional charge" of the maps matches the rush he felt decades ago when he first looked at a NASA photograph of a blue Earth floating in dark space.