[NOTE: This piece was originally published on my now-retired non-academic blog, The Organic Intellectual: Tribute to an Idea, in November 2010. It was one of a number of reflective pieces written for a doctoral seminar, which I've decided to share here].
Over the weekend, a friend who I hadn't seen for a while poked fun at me when he learned that I was doing a PhD in Geography: "So, you just sit around and look at maps all day?" Despite the antagonistic jibe, the reality is that most people out there associate geography with an intensive study of maps... yet in reality, most geographers (both in the human and physical streams) tend to be less interested in maps, and more interested in explaining and understanding either human or natural phenomena and/or their interactions. In short, true to it's broad and literal meaning - 'geo-graphy' (from the Greek words meaning 'Earth description') includes a vast array of works in which this planet (and/or any of its component parts or social elements) is further explored. Maps are just one of myriad ways to 'describe Earth'.
That said, today is Geographic Information Systems (GIS) day, and last week in our doctoral seminar we read a whole lot about maps, and so alas, I am compelled to write a word or two about maps. I have two things I want to say. Or more accurately, it's one reflection on the Janus-faced nature of maps: On the one hand, maps have an incredible 'democratic' potential to store and impart useful knowledge to be used by anyone; on the other hand, we should never forget that maps are subjective tools which have all too often been used for tyrannical purposes.
As David Harvey once put it, throughout the imperial (capitalist) era, the human experience has been largely shaped by "the absolute authority of the clock and the tyranny of the cadastral map" (1996: 224). Although Harvey's sentiment is somewhat alarmist, it is possible to see the tyrannical nature of maps upon closer observation. Among other things, maps have been used to parcel up land; justify expropriation; deny the existence of indigenous peoples; erase history; enclose the commons; mark forbidden territories; foster racism, Orientalism, and other 'othering'; uphold the status quo; excuse plunder and invasion; and enable fascist conquerors and greedy colonists. In short, maps have been used by the rich and powerful for the maintenance of wealth and authority. The act of mapping is - like any other form of 'scientific' observation - an act in asserting one's (presumably superior) knowledge over a place, space, or social setting. It wasn't until the 1980s that philosopher and historian of cartography Brian Harley helped problematize and contest the dominant cartographic paradigm at the time, which saw maps as 'objective', 'scientific', 'representations of the world'. As Denis Wood explains, "Brian [Harley] insisted on resituating maps as political documents inculpated in the creation and maintenance of social power" (2002: 140).
Harley's lesson is that maps serve a purpose; their [map]makers have both an internal and external audience for whom they are making the map, whether or not this is explicitly shown on the map's surface. For example, the Gall-Peters Projection map of the world, shown above (upside down), brands itself as a map which 'accurately' displays the earth's area in a rectangle. When Arno Peters released this map in 1973 it caused a firestorm of controversy. Peters intended the map to correct the Mercator projection, which inflates areas further from the equator (this makes Greenland look bigger than Africa on the Mercator map, when in fact Africa is 14 times larger). The Peters map also moved the lateral center of the world map Eastward (making the Bering Strait line fall down the middle rather than the Greenwich line, which implicitly favors the British Empire a position at the metaphorical top and center of the world). But the Peters' map is not without its own problems. Detractors point to problems with distance fidelity and other distortions caused by trying to project a spherical area into two dimensions. While defenders of the Peters' map say it offers a fairer depiction of the relative sizes of continents, thus offering more agency to the 'developing world', one might ask why this map has failed to challenge other conventions of institutionalized power, like why the Northern Hemisphere gets to go 'on top', or the presumed division of the continents (note the varying choices of colour to denote separate and distinct spaces), or why the map highlights the magnetic orientation of the planet, etc.
However, if we can get over the tyrannical nature of maps, keep it in mind, put it in our back pocket, then we can surely appreciate the benefit of maps in this day of advanced computing technology. Today, with a simple internet connection, one can take a virtual tour of just about any street in North America and visualize from one's own home what the world looks like elsewhere. Today, thanks to popular mapping technologies, we have relatively up-to-date geographic information available for the average computer user, almost instantaneously. Some have termed this the 'democratization' of GIS, and aside from the problems of internet accessibility faced by the majority of the world's inhabitants, this term is somewhat apt in its characterization of the new 'everybody-rules' nature of maps ['somewhat' because one might say that rather than the people ruling GIS it is actually one mega-corporation ruling the people through tools like popular GIS... but this is a whole other can of worms]. Part of the 'democratization' of mapping comes from the ability of individuals to contribute to what Goodchild (2007) calls VGI - volunteered geographic information. Thanks to Web 2.0, Goodchild explains, we can all take part (and many of us have taken part) in voluntarily mapping the world - by uploading pictures and tagging them to places, by building our own maps and correcting information on GoogleMaps, by designing buildings for Google Earth, mashing up the new and old maps, and volunteering all types of cartographic information as private citizens. In short, people themselves have become the sensors used by the big map-maker(s) of the 21st Century.
Already, as noted by Goodchild et al. (2008), the capacity of GIS has far surpassed what we expected was impossible only a decade ago, thanks to the ability to store ever larger quantities of digital information. Four dimensional maps (showing the element of change over time) are now commonplace in certain domains. For example, I can track changing weather patterns in my community and log on to to the internet to see how traffic is flowing across town.
But we have a long way to go before the next generation of 'digital earth' is arrived. In this era of climatic and environmental change, the ability to better map biological, atmospheric, topographical and human land use changes could play an instrumental role in motivating human/political action on the presently sad state of ecology. Just imagine the ability to log into Google Maps and with the click of a few buttons isolate a time map of the world's atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from 1600AD to 2020AD. NASA has already built some models that allow you to do such a thing, and it's is only a matter of time (and of course, new innovations in 'cloud' computing) that anybody and everybody could design their own 4-dimensional [or higher*] maps.
Maps are here to stay, but despite the tendency of catographic democratization, we should be ever wary of the map's second face of tyranny.
* Through VGI, individuals may one day be able to upload complete virtual streetscapes, enabling map-viewers to encounter not just the sights of other places over time, but sounds, smells and physical sensations such as temperatures - hey, it sounds crazy, but then again, it wasn't that long ago that the 'internet' itself sounded pretty crazy.