Empire of All You Can Survey

In writing on Google Maps’ ambitions to map the world, Adam Fisher invokes Jorge Luis Borges‘ one-paragraph fable of how the Cartographers Guild “struck a Map of the Empire” at a 1:1 scale with its entirety, “On Exactitude in Science.”   Fisher evokes it in comparison to the massive collation of geographical coordinates in the virtual map Google Earth and Google’s project of remapping the world:  and although he does not note this, in Borges’ story, the map “which coincided point for point” with the empire is abandoned by generations “not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears.”

The map of the imperial cartographers Borges described stand as something of a reductio–or perhaps extensioad absurdam of the very sort of large-scale mapping that was first adopted in the English Ordnance Survey–a large-scale project of highly detailed national mapping begun in 1791 prototypically English in its character, ambition and scope.  What might be the largest (and longest lasting) mapping project ever undertaken might be worth some retrospective comparison.  The ambitious project of the Ordnance Survey of offering a highly detailed national map of six inches to the mile–since the 1950s, continuing at a scale of 1:10,000–set something of a standard for protecting the nation.  Originally aimed for one inch to 1000 yards (1:36,000), its framework was set by the Principal Triangulation of Great Britain (1783–1853), but its product served to record a legible record of all British lands.  The aim of the Ordnance Survey was to create a comprehensive record of Britain for ready consultation for defense against potential (French) invaders, and the instantiation of mapping of the nation has long been tied to military ends, whose tabulation of an exact correspondence to place provided an account of national resources and needs.  Borges’ evocation at the end of his tale of the continued presence of shreds of the paper map in remote deserts of the empire that he described is so very apposite because of how the comprehensive map-weaving in Google Earth renders any state-run project of paper mapping as so antiquated to be unrecognizable–and leaving any in shreds–although what the massive and glorious project reveals about map reading might be better explored.

The global map of Google assembles is of a qualitatively other order:   for one, it is an interactive exercise of letting the consumer decide what to map, or providing a selective map for their preferences or needs.  But more broadly, it is mapping for world-domination of the market for maps, which has no clear end-product.  And not only the market:  the interactive nature of Google Maps aims to make it inseparably fused to the minds of its users, suggests Michael Jones, chief technology officer at Google and co-founder of Keyhole, one of the first companies to offer online satellite views  suggests in a nice interview with James Fallows in the Atlantic.  For Jones, Google Maps  provide an “extra-smartness” due to their ready availability as interactive media,  effectively ramping up everyone’s IQ by 20 points and working toward offering a “continuous stream of guidance and information.”  Most users have so internalized the interactive map, the founder of Keyhole argues, that “they get so upset if the tools are inaccurate or let them down:  they feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out.”  The aim is not to unfold Google Earth over a territory, but situate the map’s readability in our heads:  after 6,000-10,000 years, we’ve turned a bend and mapping has become both interactive and personal, or there is far less of a boundary between the personal and the map.

The map is no longer static, but both only and constantly being framed in an interactive fashion.  As well as change the nature of maps, it alters the nature of map readership in profoundly interesting ways, because of how it organizes and translates data into a new sort of platform.  Unlike a project of mapping national coherence, seems designed to offer a model for marketing maps that includes the ability to toggle directly into a visible record of place–“Street View”–that includes the now-familiar tagging of addresses, locations, and monuments that seemed once to be the semantic dominion of Facebook.  We can now see everything in the map, at incredibly high resolution, so we can prepare for trips of business, commerce, or pleasure by taking a look at the always-sunny record of the topography of wherever we might be heading when relying on Google’s Street View to take us there.

Whereas Borges described how the remnants of that hugely expansive paper map once coextensive with the empire that the cartographers created as lying only in the outlying deserts, Google hopes to overturn the notion of the paper map itself–leaving it shredded, or rather recycled–with everyone pulling up maps of their own on the screens of Android smart phones.  (Think of the cache of searched maps that one leaves, as a sort of paper trail, complete with search history and places navigated:  such information is not stored, Google says, but would give a veritable system of surveillance that the NSA must be eager to get its hands on, no matter what the recent ruling of Judge Richard J. Leon’s recent rebuke of mass surveillance practices, by questioning their violation of constitutional rights–no matter how ill-fated their attempt to mine big data to geo-locate global populations.  The “personalization” of the map as an interactive medium is widely seen as a surpassing of its static medium and becoming a web interface, introducing functions of zooming, panning, and rotating 360 degrees on a pin, qualitatively unlike a road atlas and even threatening to dethrone the TripTik.  For the “view” that Google aims to synthesize, linking the technologies of Keyhole and Google Earth and creates its illusion of continuity by how the alchemy of how digitized photography seamlessly melds images tagged with exact geographic coordinates.

The excitement of translating global meridians as a scheme of reference are gone, as are the excitement of working from a single base-line, to be extended outwards by triangulation, that so distinguished the Principal Triangulation and its American emulator, the Point of Beginning–a starting point of the calculation of rectangular land-surveying that took on somewhat suitable evangelical tones for the New World, after the Royal Society tracked the Mason-Dixon line.  For the mapping of the territory of the US shaped the configuration of states from the ascertaining of the base-line that determined the rectangular surveying of the United States further West–




One thinks of a similar line not at the Continental Divide, but the line surveyed dividing the continents of Asia and Europe at a precise point in Russian lands–a point that was cause for continued debate from the time of Catherine the Great as to the European location of Russia’s capital cities, viewed from a train on the way from Yekaterinberg to Vladimir, one encounters a simple obelisk to note the division.


obelisk:  Europe is to the left!Derek Low


The stem division is inscribed along this frontier in monumental form at multiple sites, or in elegantly neorealist terms at another site, similarly in a wilderness, as if a monument that few would view until they arrived to see it or passed by:




These material markers use statuary monumentality to remind passersby of the definitive nature of the line between continents that they traverse.

Google Maps (and Google Earth) is less concerned to create a correspondence within the conventions of maps to order space within a nation than to create a map outside sovereign bounds.  If there is a clear spatial marking of the “Point of Beginning” where the survey that determined state lines and lots drawn east of the Mississippi, the folks at Google have no interest to place a place where their mapping project begins; the premium is rather to capture all the points of view so accessible a mouse-click away.  There will be no reason or interest to mark an actual boundary line, was the case on the centenary of determining the boundary of 1786:   the marker celebrated the triumph of the conventions of the cartographical line in ways that Google won’t ever need to do, since their world mapping is entirely virtual, dispensing with or downplaying conventions like map-signs.





When Google maps, there is no need for mere monuments–or the practice of verifying base-lines.  The empire of the visible that Google aims to construct is animated by the indexing of digital photographs that can be reassembled at the viewer’s will; Google will offer them upon demand.  The paradox is that little actual measurement is expected, but rather that lines of data flow must be secured:  programs can synthesize the photographs that are uploaded into Google’s Street View or Google Earth, and provide a way of moving from the street map to a representation of what it looks like to be outside the map–allowing one to toggle between “Map,” “Terrain,” and “Street-View”–the holy trinity of their App–to immerse oneself in the map wherever one is, without any need for future surveys, and in ways that show to all who care the skeletal nature of a simple map.  The map is dead, in the sense of a drawn map whose conventions are about translation, but long live the map as a visual record!

There is something like a back-end move in Street View, or Google Earth, as the photograph (or a million digital photographs, seamlessly woven together) substitutes for and comes to replace the map.  The symbolization of space in a street plan or road-map becomes a heuristic device for exploration, in ways that is only a hollow echo of the photographs synthesized in Street View, which are so much more satisfyingly real:  the innovation of the satellite views of Keyhole, acquired by Google and the basis for Google Earth, allows the direct proximity for viewing place, and exploring space, that seems to go through the other side of the map itself, or be a proxy mirror on what the map maps.  Google began its quest to assemble the world on the slippy screen by downloading–or purchasing–the newly declassified LandSat satellite photographs of the world’s surface, and by purchasing and synthesizing the U.S.G.S. surveys of our nation’s road maps:  little was newly mapped here, but the world was newly mapped, in the sense that it was now made available to a larger audience than it had ever been mapped for.  The empire of map-signs did not live long, however, because the unique marketing vehicle of Street View, which set Google Maps off from others, afforded viewers something more palpable and immediate (and more gratifying) than a mere map, and whose skeletal form is revealed by toggling among alternative views:  the map as the ultimate eye-candy and as the vehicle of voyeurism, where one wouldn’t have to be content with lines on a piece of paper, but could gloriously pan around and, yes, turn one’s attention to a perpetually sunny record of whatever one wanted to see.  (“Keyhole” technology all too appropriately allowed the very zooming into high-resolution satellite views of Earth that Google now provides, as if to engage the voyeuristic interest in reading maps that the static map did not allow, and has become central to the interactivity of Google Earth.)

Why would one chose to go back to the map, or explore the map as a medium in itself?  In a neat slight of hand, there suddenly is no map, in the sense that the map is trumped as the primary register of negotiating with place, and one can suddenly see through it.  The question then becomes less a map that is co-extensive with the world, but an image-mine that dispenses with the need to make any maps.  Sure, Google is going around and checking the relations of roads and one-way turns on their road maps.   The end of doing so is to create for its users a point of view that never needs to be redefined:  much as Denis Cosgrove argued the point of view of medieval maps was often understood as the eye of God, Google Maps provides a point of view somewhat like a Leibnizian eye of a God ever-present everywhere.   OpenStreetMap is often cast as a competitor to Google Maps, is pushing in the quite contrary direction not only in the open-ness of its A.P.I., but in preserving continued relevance for the map as a collective compilation of data and meaning–and preserving both the activity of transcription we all call mapping, but is always also mapping to help us better figure out our relation to how we occupy spatial expanse.  For as much as Google Earth might be seen as the modern corollary to “the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City” in Borges’ story, geo-caching Street View images in Google Earth suggests another parable.  Much as Yertle the Turtle, King of the Pond, proudly proclaimed himself Emperor of All He Could See, until Mack burped, Google feeds our inner Yertles, more than maps the spaces we occupy.

While the evocation of The Principal Triangulation of Great Britain may seem odd, the massive project of data collation set a standard that has long driven our notion of the land-map.  Google Maps creates a persuasive illusion of totality of the visible world that often does not map human networks or their environmental consequences, and which may leave us blind to them even as it champions map-reading as something like a spectator sport.  Google Earth’s dominance as a medium raises questions about what other sorts of networks are left unmapped, or what other methods of dynamic mapping might represent social networks, but that are less clearly revealed in its maps–or are obscured–in the seamlessly knit sunlit world that we track in the slippy maps of the open screens of our androids and other Google Earth browsers.

1 Comment

Filed under Google, Google Earth, Google Maps, Keyhole, OpenStreetMaps (OSM), Principal Triangulation of Great Britain

One response to “Empire of All You Can Survey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s