Category Archives: Google Maps

Where Do I Go?

As if doing an asana into a terrain-view surface of Kathmandu, or leaning too forward into a map screen to place his head into its tiles, a sportily dressed male icon in the Antipodes Map plunges across the map to its other side.  The imagined transit through rendered topography seems noteworthy of an alienated relation to place, despite the proliferation of toponyms on the surface of a screen.  Although the site is dated, the avatar is an emblem of the reduced interactivity on offer in most web-based maps, and something like a prisoner in the platform that he was intended to promote, and the poverty of how we use coordinates as a way to organize screen-based maps that remove from cartography from an art and perhaps–more seriously–the observer from the map.  At a time when the world demands more detailed observation and scrutiny–and Donald Trump proposes not only to do less to slow climate change, but give broad profiles to climate change deniers in his incoming administration, the importance of mapping climate change seems likely to be curtailed, in ways that raise the danger of an alienation from map-based inquiry.  At at time when we need something stiff to take our mind off what’s going on, the teasing use of the map in the  Antipodes Map seems almost an emblem of uncertainty.

For the staid Google Maps platform, despite its richness in place-names, hardly suggests the landscape of where you would end up in the world.  The platform maps the location where you would suddenly re-emerge by showing its antipodal counterparts of any location on a map screen.  But the illusion of hexadecimal accuracy conceals the maps generated from a toponym could in fact be located most anywhere:  the map is impoverished of meaning.  If the icon exists in almost comic way, it suggests the seriously diminished expectations of a map and their expanded claims for trust in their certainty, the website creates non-utilitarian maps, stripped of any navigational use of actual way-finding, that make one feel the slippery epistemic consequences of one’s remove from a globe.  Indeed, it makes one wonder if the embrace of such a platform suggests an endemic alienation from the local against which we seem condemned to struggle.  The figure in the map is almost something of an emblem for the “end of the map,” and the consequences of the adoption and diffusion of platforms of impoverished interactivity. Even in an age where expanding abilities of interactivity have redefined video games, musical composition and screen use, why is the map with such lowered expectations?  There seems to be a clear sense of removing attaching narrative coherence to its form, despite its hugely rich narrative possibilities.

The algorithms underlying the Antipodes Map are simple.  They playfully promise the possibility of re-emerging on the “other side of the world” in ways that suggest the remove of the globe from our geographic unconscious.  Provided for an audience of bored armchair travelers from bored office-workers  to zoned-out insomniacs, the paired maps of antipodal locations claim to be about place, but suggest the remove of the viewer from their content.  This is partly because the rather sterile landscape is stripped of any use for navigating or sense of orientation, and its remove from the operations for travel that the map actually presents–stripped of much sense of the local or the spatial, it is as if the map were a way to play with spatial travel, so compelling that it might substitute for geographic knowledge, so removed is it from much any sense of actual presence with which a viewer can interact.  In a sort of caricature of an online map, it is a low-tech cartographic formulation of place that seems to expose the consequences of our increasing remove from a world of tangible paper maps.  Indeed, the easy generation of misleading mapping at such an extreme cognitive remove may not only perpetuate the sense of global chaos that Donald Trump purveyed with such success, but the misreading of the voting landscape that made his election so much of a surprise.  The comic image of burying one’s head in a map certainly gains added resonance after the 2016 general election for President of the United States as an allegory about the costs the alienating viewers from place whose tiles are stripped of scale and cleansed of much local detail.


Different Scales antipodes.png


Although it’s difficult to take full stock of the diminished role of the globe in daily life, the limited presence of a relation to place or spatial differences that is perpetuated in the Antipodes Map seem particularly acute for the problematic question of how we map “place” today.  In an era when we increasingly stitch together georectified satellite images of the globe, bemoaning an absence of coordinates may seem hopelessly antiquated–but the problematic meaning of “place” in a globalized economy seems mirrored in the dislocated sense of place that is present and perpetuated in many overly schematic maps–and the difficulty to mediate place, or to tell an effective narrative about place in the set of GIS tools that are available in most web-maps, whose terrain view backgrounds hint strongly at homogeneity.  The increased slipperiness of grasping place in the raster tiles of a slippy map seems to inflect the level of trust that the modeling of electoral projections sustained this past month, and a failure to register the declining numbers of voters in the map echoes the sense of banality in the maps’ properties–and their remove from telling non-generic stories about place.  The troubling absence of a road map for the future may even increasingly make us come to yearn for the tangibility and stability of the maps to which many have said farewell.


1.  It is more than somewhat ironic in an age of increasing border controls and confinement that the Google Maps engine provides an almost entirely notional relation to place in how the Antipodes Map.  For the website, which employs maps as a sort of device, takes advantage of online mapping to create an image of antipodal points of any “place,” promising to help users to “tunnel to the other side of the world”–showcasing a virtual escape from the more densely inhabited regions of the earth to that uninhabited region through to an antipodal point in the Indian Ocean, in the image of someone in a pose ever so slightly resembling downward dog, but with their head immersed in a map’s face, as if entering the sea of map data to re-emerge, mermaid like, off the coast of Australia–the very region once described as the Antipodes.

But despite the antithetical or oppositional nation of the Antipodes–or the firm belief in an artistic localism the Antipodean Manifesto advocated in 1959, proclaiming “Dada is as dead as the dodo and it is time to bury this antique hobby-horse“–place is not that clearly differentiated in a website that constructs antipodal relations generated by adding 180 to latitude and a negative sign to longitude is as almost sterile as its flat base map.  With brio, the Melbourne-basd artists who launched the Antipodean Manifesto asserted it “only natural that we should see and experience nature differently in some degree from the artists of the northern hemisphere,” against the ascendancy of American abstract expressionism, with a flourish of place-based common sense; yet the local is lost in the diversionary algorithms for imaging complementary cartographies of geographic location that are less rooted in place, than seem to aspire to transcend it.




As much as doing downward dog on the slippery surface of a slippy map, the figure in the map seems almost to bow to the authority of geolocation in the web-based map that almost says goodbye to the relation of the viewer and the map.

In an age that increasingly seems to pride itself as existing “after maps,” the website offers the metastasis of a form of mapping, fitting for an age when we are tracked in web maps,  but maps have ceased to exist as objects with their own formal properties.  It’s almost fitting how the Antipodes Map website provides viewers with an opportunity for cartographical interface maps from any place concretely render the sense of how geolocated maps exist in our heads–in fact, so immersed in maps are we that we rarely can resurface near the international dateline off the coast of New Zealand.  The cartographical fantasia that’s engineered on the old-fashioned webmaps of the website is emblematic of the loss of the globe, however–it recalls the paradoxes of imagining travel without a physical map:  we don’t travel in maps, perhaps because we are already in them.  In an age that both is inundated by maps, and lacks them, the screen cartoonishly absorbs the spectator viewing the map’s content, with a half-hearted attempt at irony at placing you next to the International Date Line in danger of being attacked by sharks.  The sense of impending danger might exist almost anywhere, given the multiple narratives that might be hung atop the awfully opaque surface of a Google Map.




Although the stitching together of images would be impossible without coordinate systems, they are sublimated in most satellite imagery and web maps, which exist with hidden coordinates, recently reborn in an age of digitized mapping forms as the UTM.  The gridded lines that once guided readership and visual attention to some degree, as well as explaining the nature of the transformation, have receded into the background as a layer beneath their surface, tacitly accepted, not part of the map’s surface and without any deictic function of indicating place–as if we don’t need them any more to read the map’s surface or place locations; the map has gained a formal coherence as a picture plane.

The absence of indication or reference points remind one of the wonderfully cloud-free satellite mosaics of Planet Labs, which balance spatial precision with the “accuracy” of the visual georectification within a coordinate system, but it has recently receded entirely, as the coordinates have vanished and disappeared as indices.  Terrestrial coordinates are the conspicuous absence we rarely take stock of in our web maps as most cartographers fit satellite maps into most any mapping matrix as a base map– stitched together as a mosaic of pixellated forms to provide a disembodied relation to a virtual landscape, whose rendering assembles a place for us in a weirdly disconcerting cartographical pastiche.


Laos Spatially accurate.png“Laos,” Planet Labs


The coherence of this map is of course predominantly pictorial, with far less premium placed on the projection.  With so many models for achieving smoothness in what now are called maps, programs for georectification take the place of base-lines, as the assembly of maps take their reference from LandSat, stitching together a mosaic that adjusts for any photographic distortions, warping each pixel to terrestrial curvature to create a coherent image seems as if it is completely removed from geographical coordinates–which are banished to tacit signs, as if relics of a past relation to a map’s face.

Because of this, the suddenly unexpected prominence that the system of coordinates gain again, as if in a return of the repressed, is so surprising in the somewhat outdated Antipodes Map.  While the website streams Google Earth locations in familiar tiled map imagery, the hidden use of a system of coordinates is its central and animating conceit.   As in the header to this post, the engine of the Antipodes Map bears out its the promise to match any location to its antipodal location,  as if suddenly pairing any screen map with its counterpart as if in a cartographically-enhanced ADD by playfully juxtaposing any place on the globe with its antipode in a semantically bizarre visualization map-engagement–




–that is an illustration, perhaps, that the map exists in your head.

But the Antipodes Map seems to render the flexibility with which map data has come to  supersede maps in somewhat accurate ways.  It’s no surprise, perhaps, that in our map-inundated era, Gary Johnson was left confounded by questions of what “Aleppo” was–a sausage?  a fashion statement?  something a President is expected to handle?–almost exasperated for lack of context to place the place-name.  Are we all in danger of finding ourselves increasingly lost in the opaque surface of maps?  We may be faced by a limited range of stories able to be attached to or hang around place, as place-names are situated abundantly in generic landscapes with few clear claims for their physical actuality, or to the stability of place.





2.  The on-line viewer of the Antipodes Map is cartographically rendered as lost in the map or as entering the surface in which he takes refuge–as if to invite the viewer to enter through its surface to arrive at a location’s terrestrial antipode.  It is an easy slight of hand but a bizarre semiotic conflation that seems to perpetuate the illusion of frictionless travel web maps allow:  the instant generation of map situating the viewer on the corresponding point on the other hemisphere echoes an image of global inter-connectedness that the constraints of a web-map don’t allow it to ever provide.  We indeed seem to fall into our screens, or into the terrain-view base maps that they generate, in the Antipodes Map website, that has revived the life of an early modern or medieval geographic concept of the weighted harmony of the place of landmasses or continents on the globe to provide a diverting disorientation to the world as viewed by Web Mercator, our current de facto default for imagining indexed tools of spatial reference on coordinates, for lack of a globe.




Despite the considerable analytic benefits of slicing up the continent and country into differently sized map tiles, the maps that cannily re-segment the country into units may have led to a lack of clarity in much of the nation for what it meant to pursue votes–no doubt complicated by the overdetermined distribution of votes, and the nature of turn-out, and the range of local policies of voting were so systematically altered over years.

To return to the Antipodes Map, the inspiration of this post, the website has the odd quality of defining place in a post-cartographical world, dispensing with the map to organize a sense of place independently from a map’s legends, words, or narratives, as if it was a readymade version of truth, to whose authority viewers enjoyed a largely passive relation, and whose immateriality contains some disorienting features of its own.


OpenStreetMap_homepage.pngOpen Street Map


3.  One cannot but worry deeply that the absence of material coherence has quite recently resurfaced in the U.S. Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.  The apparent failure to plan a pragmatic strategy to win the electoral college for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as we replay its narrative and promise within our heads in an attempt to grasp where we might have gone–or just went–so sadly wrong.  Despite the reassurance for which we turned repeatedly to political forecasts, the poor prognosticative value endemic to most all data projections that were produced during the final months of the campaign almost removed us more than oriented us to the political problems of the country.  Even if we almost didn’t grasp what happened, the problem of missing the people behind the numbers–or somehow seeming to describe the electorate, not wanting to look at the voters, the maps produced now seem to betray the inherent fraudulence of any such forecasting as an exact art, and the dangers of their analogies as forecasts to the weather or competitive ports– without looking at the margin of error or fate of the undecided, fetishizing figures rather than issues, led analysts to endow a misleading degree of solidity in the opinion poll maps.

Whether due to a lack of clear messaging by the candidate, or of just being outclassed by another storyline, something just seems to have been not visible or escaped detection– despite the reliance of the highly talented Clinton team electoral maps and big data.  For if data was ostensibly what Clinton’s team so relentlessly pursued, one can’t but worry that some did so, somehow, without looking that closely at the landscape and realities that lay beneath it.  Buoyed by expectations for higher voter turn-out and far greater voter interest, the attention to advertising markets on unreadable territories somehow increased.  Why, one wonders, even during its final weeks, rather paradoxically pursued advertising markets so aggressively it took its eyes off of the “electoral map” of voters, to shape its strategy out of ideal aspirations for arriving at a political consensus that seemed in reach in Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, as well as Arizona.  What were the reasons for selecting as the major markets for television advertising states she didn’t need to win, and directing precious resources in a quest that seems now, with the benefit of retrospect, most misguided.  For in focussing on them, her campaign seemed to ignore votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and almost Pennsylvania–and the important down-ballot priorities in those states–maybe taking for granted their historical support for a Democratic candidate as able to survive without active cultivation–in ways that were almost, incredibly, oblivious to a landscape defined by increasing voting restrictions.


VRA restrictions.png

States Implementing New Voting Restrctions in the 2016 Presidential Election


One fears that by being egged on by a data-driven optimism, inspiring a last-minute appeals to the all-but-out-of reach, the disturbing allocation of resources seems a particularly dangerous error, unwisely hoping for a victory across an east coast time zone for viewing audiences on the nightly news  on election night, or enticed by the elusive promise of a broad victory, which in retrospect seems so very self-indulgent, or at least misguided by the overselling of the precision in models of voting, and ignoring just how many wait until deciding how to cast their vote, especially when 12 percent of the electorate claims being undecided, but broke late for Trump in ways that invalidate any security in polls-based prognostications as a guide on where to place your money.

For in failing to defend bread and butter of the Democratic party the Democrats may have crashed the ship of state atop the rocky symbolic politics of a general election.  During a campaign that became increasingly unhinged from policy questions, and waged by vicious but misleading ads insinuating outright criminality but fixated on soundbites–Build the Wall!; Drain the Swamp!; End NAFTA!–slogans seem designed to boost voters energy but distract attention from actual economic issues and global dangers or disequilibria.  The consequence of Democrats saturating certain markets, buoyed by what we now see as unreliable polls, has resulted in the increasing sense of uncertainty that now afflicts the world, even if they may have seemed to make so much sense as a guide to saturate selective media markets–setting apart the content of those ads and their effectiveness.  The regions where unions once defined the project of getting out the vote found that their members were just not voting Democratic after all in 2016, the ongoing decline of unions‘ strength had significantly changed the dynamics of the voting map.  (And where many were expected to vote Democratic in the past, that just wasn’t going down.)

The dissonance of such changing where money was spent seems terribly sad.  The intensity of the ad campaign might be selectively distributed to a set of states where investments were perhaps either not enough or were maybe not clearly warranted anyway, as the airwaves were apparently flooded with Democratic ads in an overly optimistic way, as a barrage on the airwaves was assumed to sway people to one side in the final weeks of the most contentious presidential contest in recent memory.  This was almost a sustained hope to pummel one side with an intent that may have escaped actual possibilities, but remained skewed to the ever-elusive targets of North Carolina and Florida in ways that are retrospectively tragic, and removed from the distribution of electoral votes–



campaing spending TV ads.pngCampaign Spending on Television Ads in General Election, Aug 9-Oct 25 (Bloomberg)



ad-map-final-week2016-presidential-cmapignaCampaign spending on television ads in 2016 Presidential Race, September2-November 7


While the content of the ads can’t be ignored in assessing the value of these markets, the way that the media markets were so clearly cut up by someone in the Clinton camp make one raise eyebrows that big buying in Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Maine and Arizona seemed not only to abandon the vaunted fifty-state strategy, but fell short in generating enthusiasm or response.  It’s hard not to wonder, even if it many not get us anywhere, since it might help to reflect on the sorts of narratives that maps might better allow us to frame and to reflect on the advantages and consequence of doing so.  The disarming geographical clustering of media elites, the distance from their lives from the majority of Americans, and the inability to report on a broad range of social conditions create a perfect storm for failing to reflect how most of the actual voters lived, and the increased remove of most journalists from the nation, with broad suspicions of media “elites” and their pronouncements, remain a significant problem for journalists to serve a public.  But it remains fundamental that the false promise of a certainty of synthesis lies also in the data-driven delusions that allowed many to not see the potential real weaknesses Clinton might face–and not the strengths she might gain–and less on the dangers that were implicit in getting out the vote in the strange, new landscape of voting restrictions.

Could Clinton campaign’s projections have taken the eye off an electoral map, by removing a sense of niche markets from an effective overall narrative of electoral victory?   Ronald Brownstein already feared such an eventuality in the works, wondering openly if the campaign was overly attracted to assembling an apparently attractive advantageous coalition of voters, which weighted their attention to the map of apparently obtainable electoral votes that so unfortunately didn’t ever materialize.  In attempts to assemble an increasingly diverse electorate that they hoped would turn out for them, it’s hard not to ask, without recrimination, if they were driven by data and margins of possibility–or enticed by the possibility of projecting huge margins of victory across the map, in ways didn’t help the campaign to focus more intensely on the people behind it or the places where they lived, not to mention the distributions that the electoral college reflects.

The “rational over-confidence” that led them to aim for long-shot down-ballot benefits in Nevada, North Carolina, and across the South, suggests Alex Lundry of Deep Root Analytics has argued, may have led to a rather stunning neglect of core states that so surprisingly migrated in the end to the Republican column, in ways that redrew the national political map few data projections imagined and pollsters or pollsters predicted.  It may make no sense to look back in anger.  But was an absence of attention to the “heartland” in favor of devotion to urban areas in Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina a consequence of undue trust in data visualizations?  Could it be that the seductive illusion of intriguing electoral scenarios was created at the cost of curiously disembodied data in a market of political prognostication–as wide trust in models and figures helped move Democrats’ eyes off the prize in the political map?   For while Trump inundated ad markets in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania with particularly nasty misleading attacks on personal character, the Florida market gained irrational magnetism as a site to stop his Train, in ways we have to resist pondering if only to keep our heads.

Bracketing the current electoral disaster, are there genealogies of trust in data, and mediating the country through an electoral map, in the dismantling of the material map?  They are tied to an acceptance of an age after the map, in which we’re guided by the promise of comprehensive coverage at one’s fingertips–and persuaded that it would be possible to put them “in play” since we seem so empowered by the data we’ve assembled in an apparently coherent map, that we ignore its other fault-lines.

The premise seems so compelling that to be worth tracing in greater detail.  Could the embrace of digits led to ignoring individual voters, as probabilities and the compelling nature of alternate scenarios and visualizations of past history dangerously took one’s eyes off how recent elections in 2012 were determined largely by the nation’s new socio-economic map?



countymappurple512.pngMark Newman/2012 election cartograms

There are optimistic signs of the possibilities and options for refiguring the huge problems in democratic representation, as by creatively using data distributions that we have to create better centered electoral districts in less interested ways–shown here in the state of Georgia–that could reduce gerrymandering by redistricting through simple GIS.


Impartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)


Indeed, many plans for redistricting can lead to a more effective model of representation to which special interests, and bureaucratic slowness, have not led us to adopt, with potentially quite undemocratic results, in large part because of the huge cost of the transformation in voting practices.  But is the cost of such a failure increasingly apparent in the ways we form and select government for all?

And anyway, is the geographic allotment in California with greater sense as such a map?



CA.pngImpartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)


The alternative possible plausible map offering voters more equitable distributions of equidistance by automatic redistricting seems, in the abstract, potentially more reasonable, and removed from the interested division of districts in the existing map.


map-1.pngImpartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)


Perhaps the difficulties of redistricting are daunting, but the tools of mapmaking indeed have made them increasingly possible, if not for the difficulty of undertaking national changes that cut so sharply against entrenched interests of existing representatives who have nurtured bonds to their constituents, and would feel challenged by the compact district of a new electoral map, even though the older map is effectively infected by existing interests to easily confirm the redrawing of district.




Or have we been overly disempowered by platforms of mapping, in ways that have allowed them to serve individual interests in overly explicit ways?  Indeed, the possibility that mapping platforms are tied to an unwarranted overconfidence in data and in the manipulation of individual votes seem to have been present in both sides of the 2016 vote, as plans for exercising rights to create a more equanimous image of voting representation remains in an earlier era–as, perhaps, the electoral college itself, may overly distort voting in ways that we are too often compliant.




If we have long been attracted and attached to the descriptive power of the map–




–is the medium not only interfering with the message, but overly disorienting?


4.  The enduring absence of a globe may be an eerily enabling underside of globalization, in which the never-ending wonders of internet are given something of an enabling basis in a range of maps that erase a contextualized view of place.  The imagined freedoms guaranteed  by uniform access to online information on the world wide web may have origins in the sense of liberation from geographical divisions of mapped territories that many maps once seemed, after all, to perpetuate so falsely as a bad ideology of the state.  One feels hard-pressed to imagine the democratization of the “flow of information” as leveling the playing field, save by its flattening of the earth.  But let’s move to a rosier age.  But the desire for the liberation of such a global vision of information might start in the “big picture” that maps provided for folks like R. Buckminster Fuller and of course Stuart Brand, who famously took the globe as an image of big issues and complexity.

For the economy of online information that derived from such initial optimism and indeed near-utopian aspirations to emerge from geographical constraints of Cold War nationalism has produced a spatial imaginary that has all but dispensed with place, by positioning it in a new matrix of geolocation.  Despite initial eagerness to envision global unity as proclaimed in the 1960s in the iconic interrogative Brand’s clever button posed in northern California on or around March 22, 1966.  For Brand hoped a more complete image the world could provoke a release from the ideology of a national map and a holistic attitude to environmental care as if by an interrogative of greater imaginative force–




–the notion of the “Whole Earth” that Brand and crew believed to be almost in reach back in 1968 has more than somewhat receded from sight.

Brand had bravely advocated expanding one’s cartographical comprehensiveness to remap connections in a new picture for his audience.  He became an evangelizist for the “Whole Earth” perspective and offered broad “access to tools,” by boosting the breadth of its contents, and cramming information into the dense layout of its pages that optimistically erased one’s sense of disconnect to actual uneven distributions of wealth and, er, tools.  But by providing inter-connections by “big picture thinking,” Brand promoted a wonderfully holistic vision in the Whole Earth Catalogue, that Bible of “Holistic Thinking” aiming to remedy an absence of attention to complex, interconnected systems of which Brand dedicated himself whole-heartedly, by the sheer force of making a more open and comprehensive map to display the whole “big picture” in its copious abundance, enticing readers to trace extensive interconnections in the world that the Catalogue revealed.


Whole Earth Tools.pngFall, 1968


Stewart Brand and company viewed cartography both as an illustration and a model for the understanding of “big systems” he sought to illuminate in the Whole Earth Catalogue, providing an image of complexity of the “whole Earth” that interacted over an extended space in ways that cartography provided a metaphor to reveal.  Viewing the “whole Earth” sought to provide ways of revealing unseen connections between places and also offered with brio a ticket to understanding whole specialized systems and bolstered the hubris of bridging a gamut of specialities.  If this made the Whole Earth Catalogue a precursor to the internet and World Wide Web in its aims to reveal the breadth of the ongoing state of play, it was also embodied in the notion of a playful game in which the earth’s fate lay in the balance–echoed in how Brand imagined players of the cooperative game Slaughter shifting sides to prevent the earth from ever being pushed “over the edge” to one side–in an undisguised metaphor for preventing real slaughter from occurring during the war.


Whole Earth March 1970.pngWhole Earth Catalogue, March 1970 (MOMA)


The notion of a game inspired by volleyball using a ball painted as a globe sought to turn players’ energies toward protecting any team from pushing the earth over the “edge”–a fear increasingly emergent in the Vietnam War, by focusing on preventing it from falling–or, in a version modeled after Tug-of-War, by shifting sides in order to prevent the ball/earth from ever crossing too far across one line, and trying to maintain its stability.

For back when Brand and his friends optimistically  enjoined NASA and the Soviet Union to ‘‘finally turn the cameras backward’’ towards the planet earth to provide a picture of the world, posing the question first on buttons he hocked at the University of California campus in Berkeley, the notion of a new mapping of a global world and its connections would open a perspective that liberated users from what seemed hackneyed nationalistic values and promising notions of interconnection to ideas and information in new graphic forms.  The idealistic promise of global coverage didn’t create such a release, even long after the button-selling of Brand was chased off of Berkeley’s campus, but Brand’s idealistic notion of the power of global coverage informed the internet’s promise to provide information everywhere, by allowing unprecedented access to maps in ways world-changing in itself.

To be sure, the liberating force of the internet lies in its ability to provide information everywhere, but it remains true that the surface of the world wide web is anything but a uniform surface or playing field.




The absence of a level field in internet use continues even after Facebook‘s efforts to saturate the planet with free wifi, already evident in those most  connected to Facebook–


connessione-facebookFacebook Connectivity Lab


The obstacles to the dream of comprehensive online exchange hasn’t happened, and may not, given the uneven nature of the global penetration rate of the internet, whose global spread is broken down nationally on a cartogram warping of space by population, and shows deep whole in much of Africa and South Asia, and a lopsided evolution of web-use, convincingly rendered by the clever cartographer Luc Guillemot–


global-penetration-of-net-2000-2012Luc Guillemot



5.  Paradoxically, if inevitably the generation of most online maps is overwhelmingly and resolutely local, in the sense that it is only accessible in quite unevenly distributed ways–it would be wonderful to see the scope of the scale at which Google Maps is accessed in different places and regions, if such data were open; as it is, we rarely see the “whole earth” as Brand imagined, so much more focussed are we on tracking national political events or elections, or mapping the settings and spaces we travel and spread of local weather variations.  We map where we are in maps of air travel on view in airplanes, Waze apps we use to view traffic flows, or the crime maps of neighborhoods and, on a broader scope, the weather maps of nations, states, or regions, which have a sense of actuality that exploit most maps’ existence on a server, always able to be reformulated to track meaning and flows for our eyes, and indeed even to put us into its content.

Encouraged by the near-ubiquity of wifi and internet services, we use smart phones as navigational tools to trace our locations on winding roads, taking our eyes off of the itinerary, almost to the degree Rube Goldberg’s cartoon of Non-Tangle Map Rollers prefigured–running the danger of taking eyes off of the road on which we are driving.


Rube Goldbert's Non-Tangle Road Map Rollers.png


There is not such a utopian sense of how information actually flows online through the ether, to be sure.   Indeed, there are still clear winners and losers for the speeds of information exchanges that the speed of internet exchanges creates–and are not evident on Brand’s “whole Earth,” which still seems to provide the mental model to which online mapping aspires–despite the actual differences in the backbone that enables such online communications and the advantages it allots residents of certain regions:  for rather than provide a unified global image of à la Brand, cartographer Luc Guillemot’s recent map of internet capacities reveals intractable inherent differences in the sizing of information highways for different regions–and give the lie to the free-floating of information along the cables and backbones on which they are transmitted among different regions, by mapping the actual quantified capacities at which they run.

00.pngLuc Guillemot


The ways that we might understand the vision motion of information better have only begun to be mapped.  But the continuous provision of infinite information faces multiple material constraints.  The enticing image of the expanse of the global net has clear weaknesses, to be sure, as does the hope of expecting universal access to online maps.

So what of the whole earth?  Where did it go?  The proposals and presuppositions of the Google Maps template and of Web Mercator are rarely interrogated, but in the name of subsuming information to utility, and actuality to web tiles, the map engine does odd things, removed from experience, as a semantic web of spatial reference–like suppose a uniformity of land and water, render and reify abstract spatial positions removed from local context, and reinstate a flat-earth perspective that would be less familiar from a globe, that provide an array of tools to conceive of place–from tracking to geolocation.


6.  The framework of spatial reference generated the Antipodes Map streaming Google Earth locations in familiar map tiles imagery.   As in the header to this post, the engine bears the promise to match a map of where you are to the earth’s other side, analogously online information-sharing promises to place any user at any site, and by using the very same engine.  As internet-based maps provide a network of ready-made mapping whose instruments are accessible to all–despite the clear constraints that undergirds the internet and renders it less of the open area for free exchange.

The Antipodes Map engine is itself an artifact of the age in which any map is readily generated and supplied, more than exists.  It is an emblem of the utopian premises of the hyper-personalization of online maps–rather than present a record of the inhabited world, the site marks place for viewers by a search engine alone–and situates place in an otherwise undifferentiated expanse:  the map revels in the status of place in the map-engine as a “quasi-object” and of the map’s user as a “quasi-subject,” to use terms Bruno Latour coined as tools to understand the networks in which each exist; for the Antipodes Map website itself serves to trace networks of calculating place on an online map engine by a coordinate network, preparing a readymade sense of local landscapes disembodied from place and with little context, and removed from current political events or human habitation.

There is no Jules Verne-like majesty of imagining the construction of an actual tunnel, as a corridor running through the earth’s core, here advertised as a project to open to visitors tired of global air travel, linking Singapore and Ecuador, that is promised to be constructed from Singapore by 2050, which might provide the very sort of transport it imagines in an imagined physical corridor–




It oddly remaps place that preclude any sense of embodied travel, in a gloriously impoverished sense that sees the map as not only the medium, but simulacrum of travel.

The frictionless sort of travel that online mapping claims to provide to its users has been interestingly incarnated in an online Antipodes Map, if the magic of generating a web-map has admittedly lost much of its early initial sheen.  The search engine light-heartedly bills itself as a virtual “tunnel to the other side of the world” that half-exploits the decreasing availability of concrete media and forms of mapping in a “globe-less” society, whose lack it seems to mourn.  Many may mourn the symbolic centrality of the globe as a talisman of interconnectedness in the age of web-based maps, but the performance of the web-map and the surrogate reality that it offers viewers in a new network of map-use is celebrated in the engine as if to overcome the lack of the materiality of the map.  The engine allows, by an easy trick, instant generation of the web map from any set of coordinates, as “our ‘man’ will dig a tunnel from selected location, right through the center of the Earth, up to the other side of the world which will be represented on Right Map.”




Although the lack of scales in the two windows of the map-generator negotiates the fact that much of the world is water, the possibility for altering scales allow considerably bizarre symbolic, and even odder as a way to lend a sense of presence to the formally abstract and generic screen map–lending a notional materiality to the web-map that almost celebrates the map as a simulacrum that’s ready to be fashioned around where you are, wherever you are, immediately.




For if the screen map declares it to be nothing so much as a “quasi-thing,” recalling a map in its pixellated forms existing only for the beholder for whom it is conveniently remade, and reassembled, that emulates the apparatus of map-viewing on a Google Maps platform.


7.  Indeed, the engine almost openly celebrates the rebirth of the new status of the map as a “quasi-thing“–which almost ceases to register spatial variations–where geodetic data exists only in a relation to the viewer or users of the platform, rather than inhere in the map, and place a “quasi-subject” that exists in a social network of map use and is provided for the user of a mapping service.   Place, in other words, emerges in the act of consulting the map and GS84 coordinates readily generates it, and place exists as a consequence of a technology of map-reading–and a network of reading place as it is generated on search engines–and as it circulates online in a network of map reading.  Although the Antipodes Map was not particularly successful as a search engine on its own, it recreates the same networks of map-reading to generate place through the immediate assembly of map tiles.  The Antipodes Map has little to do with actual Antipodes, but less dynamic GIS version that echoes the physical interactivity for reading space H.A. Rey so appealingly rendered in the illustrated children’s classic How Do You Get There?

Rey’s fold-out images offer visual surprises that dramatically addressed the problems of modern navigation of an age, as if to socialize children to problems of transportation, that responded to the increased mobility of the mid-twentieth-century, and indeed the increased possibility of a surprising degree of geographic mobility due to contingent circumstance that Rey himself experienced.  Rey’s classic book sometime seems a valiant attempt to put a good face on the history of displacement and mobility Rey himself experienced–but recalls a tyranny of the map that has become a far less sensitive visual medium in the a dangerously disembodied absence of a sense of self amidst the tiles of Terrain View.  The interactive mapping site suggests a nostalgia for the globe, by suggesting the notion of global antipodes can be easily rewritten for the screen, is subtly mirroring the imaginary of the smooth travel that the internet and many platforms of web-mapping openly promote, even as many face increasing obstacles to geographic mobility.  Any obstacles to mobility seem miraculously erased in the user-friendly promises to immerse oneself in the map and be transported to an antipodal point–albeit one that comes up quite short on any spatial experiences at all.

For if How Do You Get There? was permeated by a sense of place, and may indeed echo how  the intrepid children’s book illustrator might have mused on the varied conveyances of his narrow escape from Paris to Lisbon and through Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, to New York City from bicycles to transatlantic ships, it offers a visual sequence of problems of transport and the most apt vehicles to move from one site to another, inventively exploiting the fold out pages in the paper product of the book to mimic movement across spatial divides across which different vehicles can transport you, retelling the radically expanded transit possibilities half way between the innovation of the ocean liner and the jet age:  the first image poses problems of transportations to which solutions immediately emerge by raising half the page, to reveal the conveyance allowing one to move across a medium–





The growth of new possibilities of transit is implicit in every page of Rey’s book, most often poignantly told from the child’s point of view, as if to offer a guide that can orient them to both the local and global, and newfound mobility in urban and global space.




In contrast, current users of “Antipodes”–a service whose plan lacks relevance to the actual Antipodes, a concept that maintained the balance and global harmony of the world’s continents, which came to refer specifically to the large southern landmasses New Zealand and Australia in much of the northern hemisphere–


207C.JPGSt. Sever (1030 AD, following Beatus Renanus)



–but rather relates antipodal points that intersect the earth’s center in a straight line, mapped on projected coordinates.

There is a sense in which the dual maps presented to viewers clearly recalls juxtaposition images in parallel slide projectors, as a sort of comparison of the formal shift in settings that the map takes the viewer or generates a place.  Rather than offer the material visual surprise of actively unfolding a paper flap, the parallel images that recall parallel projection from two projectors in the slide lectures given in darkened halls of art history lectures of a generation (or several) ago, to focus the attention of his audiences on the Formgefühl of projected images to unmask a syntax of art.  The twin map-screens of different scales in the Antipodes Map are clunky because they  echo how parallel slide projectors provided an apparatus, from magic lanterns to the slide projectors, for art historians to compare and contrast styles Robert Nelson once described as an inheritance from the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin–who employed dual projectors to give viewers the sense that they witnessed and hence best appreciated the content of images.


8.  The juxtaposition of two map screens less openly celebrate the work of art more than the speed of the instantaneous generation of images, of course.  But the Antipodes Map is similarly intent in the miracle of creating a juxtaposition of antipodal locations, as if place was merely something that arose from the comparison of locations.  The basic suasive apparatus of the website’s map engines echoed how the material apparatus of projectors that became such a staple for orienting beholders to stylistic differences, and appreciate a work of art.  They seem to celebrate the online map, despite its visual dullness of its form.

The contrast immediately generated between a provided place-name and how the engine locates its antipode by the magical apparatus of an online map engine; users are  invited to enter the sketchy simulacrum, and to identify with the icon in slacks and a white shirt who seems to reappear at a corresponding point, albeit almost always at radically different scales–that exploit the frictionless nature of the virtual map as an accurate interface.




The aesthetics of the website obscure distance, by allowing one to move by the input of any toponym to two points in the world, and find its corollary in the opposite hemisphere automatically generated.   The coordinates of longitude and latitude are suddenly, as if by a magical sort of travel, spatially re-situated by polar opposites of place represented by adventurous figurines who seem to stick their head in the ground, as in the manner of an ostrich, only for it to reappear at the corresponding antipode on the terrestrial sphere.  The website lists the range of actual antipodal cities that make one wonder what meaning lies in antipodal relations–Manila and Cuiaba (Brazil); Shanghai and Buenos Aires; Taipei and Asuncion (Paraguay); Aukland and Seville; Singapore and Quito; Suva, in Fiji, and Timbuktu; Hamilton, New Zealand and Tangiers; or Masterton (New Zealand) and Segovia–beyond suggesting the extreme over-inhabitation of much of the current ecumene.

Indeed, “tunneling through the world” will allow one to move from through an infinity of antipodes, as from Split, in Croatia, to its actual antipodal point off New Zealand by a hexadecimal coordinate system of Google Maps,–


–in ways that suggest the antipodes don’t actually “exist” as a place, but only in the relative terms that exist in a Web Mercator projection of WGS84, which in the map screen can be imagined as two points between which web-maps allow one to physically move, and coordinates that can be readily juxtaposed.

The conceit of the simulacrum of the map through which one passes, as if to another world, to its antipodal counterpart, is a cool tool to vaunt the power of the web map with apparent precision.  Tunneling through the virtual screen will surprisingly transport you from one city to another.  Iconic humanoid stick figures, our new stock figurines of surrogate explorers within the screen map, are immediately oriented to a mapped place abstracted from any vehicle of travel by the GIS mapping engine, on a website that seems glibly to treat the map itself as the medium for imagining one’s voyage to a point of parity on the globe by analogy to Google Street View, as if one might poke one’s head through the world’s surface, and treat the conveyance of the map as a way to shrink space.

While the logic of calculating terrestrial coordinates of antipodal points is ridiculously simple–by simply switching out North (N) for South (S) in each latitude; subtracting the longitude from 180° and visualizing the result in Google Maps–




–the visualization is profoundly bizarre symptom of a globe-less culture, where coordinates exist not on paper, or on a spherical surface, but rather on a screen–and may suggest something of an a nostalgia for the globe as an object of contemplation, despite the sense that it is a far less adequate substitute, whose interactive format is a bit more of a parlor game quick to become outdated in the age of online mapping.

The formal trick of the interactive Antipodes Map invites us, perhaps for want of a paper map, to dive through the surface of the map, and presents the flat surface of the screen map as if it were a surface through which one could travel through a now-absent globe, as if through a looking glass, between such antipodal points as Rome and New Zealand–


Rome to Antipodes near New Zealand.png


or Denali Park in Alaska to the even colder regions of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica’s edge–


Denali Park:Antarctic Southern Ocean.png


and imagine easy transit from Oakland CA to the Indian Ocean–




or from the West Bank and Jerusalem, as if to escape the constraints of increasingly obstructive boundary barriers, to beside the international dateline in the South Pacific–



The notion of such smooth cartographical getaways are flights of fancy, but can’t help but make one think of the actual mobility of refugees who increasingly crowd the surface of the world whose itineraries are all the more fraught.  Has it been a coincidence that as globalization is based on new modes of mapping borderless travel and data flows without frontiers, frontiers of economic differences are increasingly constraining ever-increasing numbers who are not often on our mental screens?



Perhaps the magic of shifting place in the Antipodes Map is a product of a society where our travel intensity is so susceptible to place-shifting and where upwards of 700,000 are up in the air at any moment, and over a million paying passengers flew daily in 2015, and airlines are expected to fly 3.6 billion passengers by 2016.


air_routes-1Michael Markieta (Arup)–60.000 air routes


In an era of massively accelerated geographic mobility connecting some 7,00 airports, there is something crazily believeable about the playful conceit of the Antipodes Map:   one might readily imagine one can stick one’s head into the land only to re-appear, presto changeo, on the other side, as if by sticking one’s head into the ground, one might reappear on the other side of the globe.  We are removed from the sense of a globe–despite the use of terrestrial coordinates; the website rather provides a sort of Flat Earth Project, now is cast as sort of paired Moebius strip, using the visual metaphor of entering head and hands first though the pixellated map of New York,


New York.png


–one might be conveyed by the search engine, as the map gives way, in all of its faux materiality, and we appear at the opposed set of terrestrial coordinates, off the coast of Australia, in a metaphor for the cognitive difficulties of world navigation by smart phone, using a projection that expands Antarctica to a prodigious size the it serves as the footer of the screen:


Near Australia.png


Resolutely and radically anthropocentric, if similarly antiquated–much as the conceit of compare and contrast with dual slide projectors, the variation on Google Street View places the humanoid and seemingly male figure in an abstracted landscape, in ways that incarnate an idealized interface between man and map, loosened free from any environmental context or actual spatial orientation, save longitude and latitude.




One can move in to closer scale, to be sure, and focus on a specific neighborhood or intersection of streets in a city before symbolically tunneling to the other side of the world, or reappearing on the matching coordinates in the other hemisphere:  but place is less here understood as a place of habitability, or inhabitation, so much as the coordinates mediated on a screen and as a sort of place-marker, familiar from Google Maps, with only marginal reference to its topography, and not a space for settlement or inhabitation.

The fictional cartographic conceit entertains an imagined transit of childhood–digging a hole to China?–but rather than present an actual adventure, à la Jules Verne, one celebrates the versatility of the flimsy artifice of the flattened screen, which suddenly and playfully invests itself perhaps with a health share of faux materiality, as if to announce the lack of global bearing or geographic learning that are in the end required for new tiles to assemble and reassemble themselves at convenience, to show you where you are, and no real need for a conveyance to arrive anywhere in embodied form, and to celebrate that no resistance or friction to imaginary travel exists any longer in a globalized world.

Sometimes the icons may seem odd, not to mention out-dated, as if one was doing asanas in the midst of a forest near Nepal, where all of the previously familiar constraints of travel are erased by the imagined access to space that the terrain map provides.





We can move, frictionlessly, to tunnel across the world in this cartographical fantasy from a site located beside a lake–




to an unkown site in the Indian Ocean–




or indeed from the Himalayan mountains of Tibet to off the coast of Chile–




The oddest aspect is the utter absence of a sense of conveyance, as if a celebration of the fact that what exists is not reality, but only, and absolutely, the fantasy of a flattened map.

If Ray celebrated the opening up of the landscapes of travel by different conveyances, as if to celebrate the transit across space for readers, by orienting them to challenges that almost seemed impossible–





–the notion in this search engine seems to be that there is no landscape, but that by playing with maps, in an innocent way, the contours of the globe are not only easily transformed to a hand-held pixellated screen, the new medium of the map–




–but that one almost doesn’t even need to see anything in the map as a set of spatial relationships, but can use it to lead to situate oneself immediately in the static landscape ties that the search engine generates.

How to reconcile the constraints in which so many live clustered on the side of borders that defined economical disparities, or just outside them, with the unbounded optimism of the online map that can track our position at any place in the inhabited world seems a problem of world-making, if one that mapping may not alone resolve.


Filed under data visualization, geolocation, Google Maps, interactive maps, mapping place

Weed Maps?


Whereas the criminalization of marijuana over the past decades strove to push the stuff literally off the national map, the last election opened up the frontiers of the legalization of pot in ways one could scarcely imagine in previous decades.

For the rethinking of the efficacy of a “war on drugs” offered a new map of the legalization of cannabis as a recreational pursuit and legitimate business.  The rise of legal marijuana dispensaries in many states of the nation have created yet a new manner of mapping our national divides–itself a favorite national past-time.  From the illustration of which states have enacted laws of marijuana legalization as a substance and, increasingly, as a crop–


Marijuana Legalization map


–or, to offer a more updated account of “decriminalization” as well as “legalization” in a map of quite unharsh lavenders, light blues, and sea greens:


Map-of-US-state-cannabis-laws.svg   Legend MariJ Map clean


Only recently, the newsletter of our local organic farmer, while allowing the stupidity of “trying to outlaw a plant,” took the time to explain to his customers that, despite some demand for the inclusion of the crop in the harvest boxes currently on offer from his farm, “medicinal herbs” long lay off of his radar, and would involve him with a “milieu of doctors, patients, quacks, drama, stress, illness, research and recovery” that were not quite what he had ever planned to dedicate himself:  “just because marijuana is legal doesn’t mean I choose to grow it,” Andy explained, while offering that the past two years had already seen a “green rush” on farmlands in much of Central California, grabbing land in the hopes of its future legality as a crop in ways that have placed a new pressure on renting and locating greenhouse space as marijuana growers are posed to drive up rent–although the market for growing grass has also attracted a new demographic to agricultural farming, in his opinion leaving us posed to have an oversaturated market.

The new green of the nation has been seen as a market for financial futures–

cash crops.png

–but we’ve only begun to navigate its availability on the ground, trusting perhaps on the free market to provide for weed dispensaries in many states that have recently “gone blue” of making it legal, creating islands of legality in a sea of decriminalized (if illegal) orange, and sites where it is illegal (red) or where its illegality is less often enforced (pink).



NAFTA decrim mari.pngWikipedia/Creative Commons


These broad brush-strokes of cartography demand a far finer grain, or course–to show their impact on the ground.  And a finer grain has arrived with the entrepreneurial folks at Weed Maps who have painstakingly collated, shortly before the vote for legalization, those local dispensaries where medical marijuana was available.  The topography of pot was delineated with qualitative ratings, offering a range of scale to which one can zoom to reveal a geography of availability and even openly ranked dispensaries that are perhaps the closest available we have to sanctioned standards.  Users can click on the clickable icons of dispensaries that appear on the screen with precise geolocation, differentiating “laboratory tested” from, presumably, riskier, and delivery services from in-store only.

A Google Maps template essentially provided a new iconography of pot, particularly useful when one is addressing customers and taking laws for medical cannabis at their word.  Issues of legibility and economy in a map lies always at the crux of cartographical invention, and we might look at these early models of mapping as a sort of prototype that has sprung up on a website that includes such euphoric messages of encouragement of abundant capitalization as “Congratulations Washington!  Legal Weed Has Arrived!” and ponders “What a long, strange road to legalization it’s been in the Evergreen State.” Consider the local density of outlets in the Bay Area, in a map offering a busily synoptic overview of the rich efflorescence of the weed economy, as a promising point of departure:


Bay Area Weed Map


Hard to read, you may say, and too crowded and complex in its iconography, not to mention for readers with occasionally addled brains?  The interactive map produces its best results by hovering over specific sites, but in the large-scale version just gives an idea of the abundant range of buying options available. But let’s just focus on buying clubs around the East Bay:


East Bay Dispensaries


and take advantage of the range of ratings and select reviews that you would not usually expect to find on Yelp!:


Rating and Reviews


This could be of use for the traveller–not many legal dispensaries in Fresno or Reno–or for whittling one’s abundant range of options down to the lab-tested–


Lab Tested


or, to restrict oneself to both recreational AND lab-tested–


Bay Area Recreational, Lab-Tested


or, shifting the geographic terrain a bit to a nearby destination, to explore the rankings of regions closer to the Sacramento foothills:


Sacramento Foothills--review and rank


And you might do a double-take at finding out how quickly demand has driven the rapid growth of dispensaries that have sprouted up around greater Seattle:


Dispensaries in Washington


For this inventive appropriation of the Google Maps API and the ranked range of selectivity that might best suit the searcher of legalized cannabis, we have to thank the folks at “weed maps” for the mash-up, even if one wished they used an OSM base map, whose “open access” options might allow easy mapping of the proliferation of future sights of sale.  Even though recreational use of marijuana is not legal in 48 states of the union, Weed Maps CEO Justin Hartfield, a visionary and a man on a mission, projects annual earnings of upwards of upwards of $30 million, and uses his mashup as something like a crusade to keep marijuana in the hands of user.

The iconography of mapping marijuana’s availability can get curious as an early mashup.  Often, for example, despite the inventive and unconsciously playful iconography, one gets some nice visuals, but most maps are often all too crowded–as one can already see in those of the Bay Area, with information and odd juxtapositions, as in the proverbial New Jersey delivery truck seeming poised to carry cannabis to Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel–


Some of the Iconography is Cool


The API reveals some nice “weed islands” that will be useful to note, even in states where legalization is the norm, as Rhode Island.


Weed Islands?


While quite rudimentary in design, the proliferation of push-pins pointing to places to purchase pot posit a pivot in themselves in the changing topography of cannabis in the new millennium.  More than anything, it just shows the relative rapidity with which marijuana is openly on the map. So, go forth and map?  It’s a lot easier to negotiate the topography.  Hartfield himself boasts at having lit up “almost every day” for fifteen years, as a medical marijuana customer who was impressed with the extreme openness of information about pot options at his local dispensary, which gave him the idea of mapping quality and availability, so that “people can do their own research.”

Mapping such a mashup seems a start for revealing something like a new landscape:  if legalization advances, of course, as advocated quite recently by the New York Times, the newspaper of record, and the ranking of quality reaches mainstream consumers, the WeedMaps ratings system might merge with or be overwhelmed by Yelp–although the data already accumulated, and the audience that they’ve reached, seems to put them a leg up.  “We know more about the plant and love the plant,” Hartfield observed, perhaps with something of a sly smile, “than anybody else.”

Despite the complex global landscape of legality–


1200px-World-cannabis-laws.pngWikipedia–Multiple Authors


–the excitement of this islands of blue largely on North America’s Pacific coast have created considerable commercial interest in the possible open markets for pot.

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Filed under Google Maps, Google Maps API, marijuana, marijuana legalization, medical marijuana, weedmaps

Windswept Lands

The ready availability of huge datasets offers multiple formats for modeling an increasingly dynamic relation to space. Indeed, the processing of remotely sensed data allows for frighteningly rapid condensation and synthesis of what can be called information within a single map.  And the recent NOAA based on modeling weather conditions in a real-time wind map is particularly neat in how it invests the currents of air that swirl above land and sea with a hue of their own, as if to invest them with character as a subject of mapping and give them a new level of visibility.  Set against a night sky, where details such as topography or ocean currents are conspicuously silenced, the lines of winds appear in neon blue relief off the California coast, showing an elegance of serpentine motions are tracked with far more wonder than the static terrestrial map:


The flowing electric blue lines used to render wind move with a sleekness as if to promise immediate access to meteorological actuality that seem to blend the screen with current wind conditions, and provide that most fantastic of illusions of a map of the present-day that almost sends tingles up our neck in providing a map of events that seem actually to be transpiring.  The maps have in fact led reporters to gush thanks to the US government for its funding of the project with tax dollars, creating new conditions for the visibility of currents of air to which we are ineluctably drawn in an almost zen manner.  The GIF suggests a mapping that is based on looking at the overlooked, or rendering the smoothest of airborne sensations with cartographic legibility.  It echoes the recent ability to encode data from sensing stations in a transfixing image of swirling gusts that seems far more animated than the flat topographical base map that lies beneath.


The attraction of these maps is more visual, in fact, and somehow more seriously phenomenological, than having to do with geographical information, save as it suggests the increasingly fluid nature of all information flows.

The dynamic nature of wind maps renders an idealized perspective whose content asymptotically approaches a view that is almost entirely abstracted or removed from the inhabited world, based on the mathematical models for projecting and tracing the currents and intensity of wind over land:  indeed, in the marvelously idealized data-driven maps, wind currents create whirls of whorls over the lower forty-eight.  The website uses real-time images of the inroads winds make across the territory of the United States, distinguishing gradations of gustiness by wisps of differing intensity to describe a space not only removed from the inhabited world, but whose elegant tracery enacts an aerial drama across in an artificially demarcated mapped space too vast to comprehend, but offers a sort of atmospheric ballet of the wind’s shifting directionality and intensity, as if traced by a multitude of individually situated geographically dispersed weather vanes oriented by the shifting winds across the lower forty eight.

Wind Map website image

If the image recalls something like a smoke-filled room, it is more of a wind-filled continent, where blowing winds cross borders, rivers, and plains in an image of the bounds of the contiguous forty-eight states.  The cartographers, or artists of technological visualization, Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg are dedicated to “work [that] explores the joys of revelation” and in converting local data to suggest natural currents that existed before highways carved the continent into itineraries–like the “blue roads” of rivers run across the land–but their constantly shifting trails mark a weirdly curved space in a situated perspective rarely able to have been captured before.  Even on a “mild day,” the winds give a sort of dramatic intensity to the organization of space oddly removed from the cartographer’s art, which is quite passive in the sense of offering a surface to be inscribed by the movement of the air, as wind curves around the nation’s great plains in currents of a recognizable patterns or flows that approximate stop-action photography.


Looping Denver

Sure, there are specific moments of meteorological intensity when winds line up in a recognizable pattern–a tornado or hurricane–in ways that define a geographic focus of interest or attention, as in the vortex of Hurricane Isaac as it approached New Orleans,


but all too often the dispersal of attention is the rule, as one watches the patterns that winds themselves generate.

This charting of currents is one of the most precious dreams of early map-makers:  to chart the very presence of winds across the land and sea, early symbolized by the rhumb lines that were so important for nautical navigation in early modern and medieval charts, where they communicated the basis of projecting travel across oceans otherwise rarely noted or known how to be represented in the surface of the map itself:  even the lines surfaces of the waves on which ships gently rock and sea monsters rear their heads is only a suggestion of the winds that run across their surface.

Olaus Magnus

The wind-map is abstracted from territoriality in a sense, as were the oceans:  its formal focus on the United States, derives from its synthesis of predictions of the National Digital Forecast DatabaseLaura Kurgan has suggested how much the big data of cartographical operations like Google Maps or Google Earth were not only enabled but indebted–and informed by–the declassification of satellite views during the Clinton administration, which created something of a boondoggle of available data for American mapping firms, if it also informed the very strategies of global surveillance that Google inherited:   the delicate wind-maps Viégas and Wattenberg conceived and coded suggest less of a governed land than a territory inhabited by air, in which the unfurling curling currents of wind estheticize the bounded nature of territory:  migrations of flows of air that course above the terrain, tracing inroads of whitespace into the blackened map of the lower forty-eight until, over a sufficient amount time, the entire region would be wiped white or erased by air currents, and present only where wind-velocity was nil, in an atmospheric vanishing act of a truly windswept land, where winds course across by crossing out space and inevitably white-washing inhabited lands.

Winds over US whitening out whitening #3

Drained Nation Whitening #6

In another sense, the wind maps register the messiness of local interaction, so absent from the idealized rendering of the map, even if that interaction and specificity lies above where human interaction occurs, and creates a network of a sort that is constantly reconfigured before our eyes as it is drawn and redrawn in trajectories with comet-like tails.

Modelling Wind Flows 12-58 EST-4

The modeling of wind gusts across the contiguous United States suggests a new sense of the spectatorship of the D3 map, although real-time of the map qualities maintain an illusion of an actual meteorological surveillance of the skies.  Just as we cannot watch the unfurling of wind-currents of different velocities over the space that is mapped, they define the dispersal of wind currents across space as if at a remove from actual habitation:  the fine lines that recall stop-action tracing of six levels of gustiness across the nation are extraneous to sites of habitation, because habitations are not what is being described, or included in the data that drives the map:  the conventions recall streets or waterways or rivers, but follow a set of mathematically modelled swirls and whorls that render air apparent over the land that we more usually map, in a view to currents far above the ground.  And yet the mesmerizing drama of modeling data of wind currents is so elegant and engaging that it is hard to stop watching: its ambitious organization charts a record of our world at a remove from the categories of mapping that we are more habituated to scan.  In a way, the windmap is the most elegantly estheticized of terrestrial or worldly maps, because it is also the most etherial.

USA Windswhirls May 1 12-58

What is the subject of the map is the flow of data that is so oddly anthropomorphic, casting the map as a hirsute surface and second skin, even as it describes the velocity of air currents above the land abstracted from any view of place?  Do the wind-currents create or seem to sculpt a sense of place in their whirls and eddies, giving a concrete palpability to the map’s surface that somehow runs against the flattened isotropic surface of a map?  Is it still a map, now that any sense of spatial indices are erased, and centers of habitation are dramatically reduced?  Or is it a screen?  One of the beauties of this projection is that as one zooms in to the ground, further cities appear in the map, providing the needed points of reference that would be too busy in the larger scale versions, where they would obscure the beauty and drama of the inroads made by the winds that circulate across the lands.

Shaggy USA

There is specific period eye that is attracted to the data visualization, familiar with reading data distributions rather than describing a topographic space in naturalistic terms of portrayal.  If the United States seems a shaggy dog, the most mesmerizing of D3 tricks in the book is to watch the ongoing expansion of wind currents across the Rocky Mountains, Desert, and California, from an imagined t-zero at which the calculations are assumed to begin, as winds begin to be inscribed, as if on an etch-a-sketch in reverse, and give contours and form to the blank black area that the first screen seems to map, suddenly giving it a texture that is specific to a date and time when the download of whether data began, until it gains something of a meteorological image of wind flows.

West Coast Winds 1

Califn Currents #3

Calif Currents #4

Calif Currents #5

Californai Currents #7

Is this sort of data visualization, as attractive as it is, a map?  The processing of the distribution of air currents is difficult to stop watching because of the elegance with which it makes us look at the winds that we notice but have such a hard time collectively grasping, and because of the currents, eddies, whirlpools and lines of different flow that the wind map increasingly reveals, so that it gains a coherence in itself that it initially lacked. The idea of mapping air is intensely appealing, because it acts, as a map, to make visible what is so easily overlooked or otherwise has no concrete identity by which to be grasped.  The parallel currents, if approximating a familiar natural appearance of a hirsute coat, are nonetheless quite conceptually difficult to envision in their relations to one another or totality.  The best reaction is one of wonder–wonder at being able to find a visual residue tracking the unrelated sensation of wind:  this is mapping, in a sense, as an exercise in synesthesia, where sight replaces the sensation of wind on skin.

There are elements of translating sense-based observations to a format of visual modelling in all maps, but the oddity of removing the array of wind-velocity from sense-peception of course seems odd because one rarely thinks of spatially locating winds with precision or fixity.  With closer examination of the trajectories of gustiness one notices, first, the odd pockets of calm across the land, oddly coincident with some cities, and probably not only because their buildings block the velocity or intensity of air flow, in what can appear like racing currents or overlain strands:

Pockets of Calm?

And then the country, as it is inevitably drawn by an invisible hand of the forces of the winds, cumulatively gains the contours that it originally lacked:

Modelling Wind Flows 12-59 ESTModelling 12-58 EST--3Modelling Wind Flows 12-58 EST-4

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Filed under CityLab, comet-like tails, D3, Fernanda Viégas, Google Maps,, Martin Wattenberg, National Digital Forecast Database, NOAA, wind-maps

The Curtailed Circulation of Paper Charts

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coast Survey has long issued authoritative charts of the nation’s coastal waters.  But from this coming Spring, that office of the Dept. of Commerce will cease to print the lithographic charts it has long reproduced on paper in such glorious precise detail.  What is billed as a major move of cost cutting no doubt reflects the dominance of electronic maps consulted on laptops or hand-held devices.  But it also will place a new emphasis on reading charts on the screen media and by comparisons to GPS, using computer screens exclusively rather than in consultation with paper charts.  Is the cost of charting the shifting form of coastlines worth the cost of ceasing production of revised maps?

As a response to the difficulties in reprinting up-to-date paper charts for sailors who often fail to purchase them, the Coat Survey has decided to shift only to distributing charts via on-demand printing, PDFs or electronic charts as of April 13, 2014, both to allow access to updated nautical charts, and allow access to digitized versions of the full range of coastal charts on NOAA servers.  Increased use of digital and electronic charts has dramatically diminished the profitability of commissioning individual lithographic maps, marking an end of an era of American cartography in print.  Yet does the close of a tradition of lithographic reproduction of maps effectively distance us from the delineation of coastal waters?  How crucial was the role of lithography as a medium to translate coastal measurement and tabulation into a recognized graphic format?  Or is the content of the chart so easily separable from the medium?

An online kerfuffle resulted from the announcement of curtailing the longstanding precedent of government-sponsored map printing in a cost-cutting move, and offering of maps only in downloadable form.   The suspension of the paper lithographic charts over which NOAA long exercised a sort of monopoly–and set a standard of the accuracy of nautical cartography–is difficult to take.  It seems, for one, perhaps the final extension of the dominance of online maps and mapping, and to reflect the dominance of laptops or tablets as navigational tools–something that few outside the world of practiced sailing would have imagined as a use for those media.  Although there will be a guaranteed possibility of print-on-demand charts (POD’s), ceasing to print those beautifully detailed lithographs appears a victory for the digitized map-use, most often associated with the digitized format of servers like Google Maps.  While not subtracting the paper map from circulation, it leaves most folks dependent on the two-inch screens of Palms, tablets, or laptops, with built-in Garmin chartplotters or other GPS systems in a sort of snazzy interface.  Indeed, the shift in the circulation of maps has potential reverberations for map literacy and readership, by removing chart-reading from the sort of intense engagement such as pencil marks, course lines, erasures, or time marks that were so long the norm on paper charts.

Are the knee-jerk reservations about ending the printing of lithographic charts based, we might ask, on a romantic the fetishization of the coastal chart–those truly beautiful creations?  It might as well merely register a changing threshold of map literacy.  The most compelling reason is the dominance of a new sense of interface that downloaded maps allow, as well as to keep pace with the expanding number of on board on-line devices from laptops to smart phones.  When GPS allows one to plot one’s global position at sea with an accuracy of within some 16 feet, the nautical chart seems to lose its accuracy.  Although the reactions to NOAA’s s Office of Coast Survey has been quick and often lamented the end of the nautical lithograph, the decision to stop the production of nautical charts is not only regretted.  Indeed, DuckWorks magazine has called paper charts the most dangerous thing for navigators–both in preserving a sense of incorrect measurements and obstructing access to the most up-to-date accurate cartographical information with a direct GIS interface, as another ghost of information worlds past.

Yet if downloadable charts promise an end to the problem of the inaccuracy of outdated maps, the medium also suggests a distinctly different notion of encoding data in nautical charts, now often restricted to the parameters of the medium of consultation–Tablet, handheld GPS device, or even iPhone–that seems the inevitable consequence of the shift in attitudes toward the disappearing the materiality of the nautical chart.  Even if Jeff Siegle of DuckWorks powerfully centers the debate around the “chart-image” rather than the medium, in an era when it’s a truism that “the medium is the message,” doesn’t the shift to downloading digitized versions of coastal charts onto slippy screens suggest a shift in the “period eye” by which we plot expanse on maps?

As screens of laptops are increasingly the primary forms for plotting navigational routes, and the use of chartplotter products or other apps remove the physical map from its centrality as a tool of noting changes in coastline, wreckage, or debris.  The consultation of paper maps is a rarity in an age of the coastal navigation by GPS, and the increasing role of on-line computers on board most ships.  In contrast to the security of the information on monitors, and use of apps as much as instruments, create a new sense of how we interact with nautical space; the frequent revision of paper charts create a sense that the map may often be outdated or incorrect.  Indeed the very iterability of the map–and the monthly updates that NOAA has come to release monthly probably made the choice to go online incumbent–is of a piece with the downloading of updated versions from their server.  Over time, paper charts have been less often consulted in relation to screens, and offer unwieldy forms of interface.  Even if the ability of reprinting of future charts from PDF’s of comparable durability is not that clear,  NOAA will certify print-on-demand chart sellers; the market for paper maps has dramatically shrunk as the authority of the printed chart has eroded over time in comparison to the electronic charting tools.

The announcement to cease printing paper charts seems another page in the “end of maps”–or at least of the lithographic staples that provided a basis to note different observations, routes of travel, or changing plumb-line depths of waters.  The announcement is perhaps not surprising, but suggests a conspiring of reduced funding after federal budget crises, decreased commercial demand, and the victory of the touchscreen viewer as a medium for plotting course have led to the end of unfolding a chart to read expanse, despite the huge distances regularly needed to be covered in nautical travel.  Could one ever depend on a touchscreen format or the individual tiles of a slippery screen’s surface, however, as a medium that allowed one to contemplate or project a course of nautical travel with similar expansiveness?  Practiced sailors lament that the map, while perhaps not a primary guide, augmented skills of orientation with “added redundancy” not only as a check, on which sailors were able to fall back, even as captains relied upon more easily updated electronic charts NOAA released on their servers.  When GPS crashes or goes out, doesn’t one have the same ability of control over one’s course–and a broader framework for judging course–on a paper chart?  But the medium of the printed maps faces an uphill battle in an age of GPS, when the use of dividers to plot bearings seems as rare as astronomical bearings.

Bill Griffin, general manager of Fawcett Boat Supply in Annapolis, Maryland, doubts that “any prudent mariner is going to have paper charts,” and refused to see his own line of sales of paper charts as declining:  “I don’t see paper going away anytime soon.”  Yet others are ready to celebrate the paper chart’s decline and say goodbye to an antiquated medium.  Maine captain Jeff Siegle, who sails regularly on a coastline “strewn with the remnants of sunken vessels that went aground on the rocks, believes that the second most dangerous thing to have aboard a ship is a paper map.  When advanced chartplotter software such as Coastal Explorer reliably record nautical position automatically, the electronic form of mapping allows a degree of interactive reading of the map that contains all the abilities for leaving notations that paper maps possessed, and an active interface with other digital media.  The electronical mapper from a radar pilot, moreover, allows one to visualize position on a screen that one can readily mark:

Electronic Mapper from Radar

Yet is one not sacrificing a degree of map literacy, including the depths taken by plumb lines from boats, that defined earlier NOAA maps, combined with local visible topography?  In maps such as this section of the existing chart of the Valdez Bligh Reef, one finds a path without latitude or longitude in electronic maps, and a far more static rendering of space.  Are we too accommodated to reading a Google Earth interface to negotiate the business of specific details included in the paper chart, or of how a sailor might process his relation to nautical expanse, or are things like the sounding of ocean depths simply TMI once one has registered one’s path?

Valdez Bligh Reef Chart

The sense of scale that a paper chart might afford of the surrounding waters intuitively seems more accessible than the more restrictive reading of an electronic map, as the unfolding of a larger map of the region seems to afford a degree of spatial legibility that stands to be increasingly sacrificed with the diffusion of small-screen tablets, whose ability for zooming in and zooming back seem less easy to map against the area where one is traveling.  Even when one has full access to all the PDF’s of NOAA on one’s own two-inch handheld palm pilot, tablet or iPhone the circumscribed screens of display threaten to remove their readers from a greater context, or a familiarity with shorelines, removed as it is from the encyclopedic detail of the synthesis of measurements that are encoded on the paper chart.  If paper charts were rarely utilized on many ships, eclipsed as they were by electronic charts, retiring the chart seems a sacrifice that responds to the dominance of our habituation to track, zoom in, pan, and zoom out that the static image on the paper chart does not allow.

Even if “We know that changing chart formats and availability will be a difficult change for some mariners who love their traditional paper charts, but we’re still going to offer other forms of our official charts,” Capt. Shep Smith, responsible for the US Coastal Survey’s division of Marine Charts, put the best face on the circumscription of his services to the provision of PDF’s. Given that “advancements in computing and mobile technologies give us many more options than was possible years ago,” the ability to make maps available for anyone to download created a sense of accessibility and widespread distribution of charts always able to be updated–what is more dangerous on a boat than an out of date chart?–and allowed the world of nautical charting to migrate into the most popular interface of our age.  It’s great to download an accurate PDF of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, NOAA Chart 18649–“Entrance to San Francisco Bay.”  On it,  one can find the content of earlier charts, or zoom into details at different scales, as much as its relative pixellation will allow, maneuvering in virtual form across the multicolored screen as a surrogate for moving through space.  What is lost by a lack of the broader context of the chart or its interface with compass seems as odd as the sextant–or the cavalry and bayonets which Barack Obama cleverly invoked in response to Mitt Romney’s unwarranted concerns for our navy’s size.

The use of tablet computers and GPS chartplotters on both larger, commercial vessels and pleasure boats suggests a different approach to the encoding of information in nautical charts, and indeed in using the map as a basis to plot routes of travel, which are frequently confined to repeated pathways.  But the frequent compression of the huge amount of graphic detail on one’s bearings to the form of a small screen–and the need to invest in a large enough screen to view the PDF in a visible form, or to find outlets where downloads can be printed on durable paper.

Golden Gate Chart

To be sure, the general differentials of depth are easily observed, lying as they do around Treasure Island, the pivot point of the Bay Bridge, but lines are less easily traced, measurements be noted for future sailors, or just for oneself, to be stored in a drawer, cabin shelf, or brought ashore for future examination.  As we store fewer hard copies of maps, how does this change our relation to the map as an object, or change the storage and circulation of cartographical records that one can consult?  Does the rise of digital mapping, as feared, decrease the sort of exchange, augmentation, and criticism of the cartographical sources or to the base-map?

The age of celestial navigation that first encouraged the rise of paper charts might be traced to the rise of a mathematics of charting nautical position whose need no longer exists with GPS services and the availability of electronic maps.  If the eulogy of the Salem Marine Society for Nathaniel Bowditch, author of the American Practical Navigator (1802) that featured expanded tables for navigation proclaimed that “the name of Dr. Bowditch shall be revered as one who has helped his fellowmen in time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless oceans” and needed “no monument” to be kept alive “as long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north, the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens,” the expansive coastline that Bowditch traced from the Caribbean islands in his “Epitome of Navigation,” the pathless oceans now seem to have paths and positions without bearings.


The broader canvas of Bowditch’s actual chart covered the entire Atlantic, over which he sought to provide tables of reckoning to tabulate navigational position within a frame of longitude and latitude that could be readily consulted, charting an oceanic expanse from coast to coast, linking the ports on its facing shorelines, framing a totality not easily processed or comprehended on even a wide screen:

Bowditch Atlantic

What are we saying farewell to, if not an idea of reading an expansive map in paper form that can be readily preserved in the observatory of a boat, and displayed to its passengers, and to a shift in how one stores one’s own nautical maps of a course one often knows relatively well, and navigates over time?  The new basis for map-use (and map legibility) suggests both a far more limited field and a less personalized basis for translating personal tacit familiarity in plotting course to the map’s format, and a far diminished intersection of map with travel lines, once limited to parameters of backlit screens that offer limited opportunities for convenient collective consultation, or for unfolding to gain a broader sense of nautical course or compass lines.  Even if we are easily able to plan courses and trace routes on electronic screens by grease pencils directly on the surface of a screen in ways that can be easily erased, and download new updates of paper charts onto a handheld, and measure distances with nautical tools atop screens, if not rely on apps, does zooming in and out on screens of electronic form offer the broader contextual that a paper chart provided?  While I doubt  that as a landlubber, I can truly say,one worries that the end of the translation of nautical measurements to the sort of graphic syntax that lithographic maps long offered are truly as easily preserved in pixellated form.

New NOAA mapping format

While the interface of an electronic map with GPS may be a read herring to the downloading of charts as PDF’s , the display of data in electronic maps that is centered around the position of a ship or vessel on ocean waters seems to abstract the vessel from its surroundings:  the display of data in electronic maps is constructed about geospatial position in ways that antiquates the role of reading a chart in order to determine nautical trajectory or course, by centering the screen around ship’s location rather than immersing the reader in a system or abilities of measurement. The victory of the medium of display seems a victory of the ready-made–if not a lazy model of map making.  Like the self-driving Google Car, indeed, the courses of travel on coastal waters are not only almost mechanized on most ferries, or among commercial pilots, whose routes of travel are increasingly computerized, or driven in ways plotted and tracked on digitized maps.

The trimming down of NOAA would no doubt shock its founder, Thomas Jefferson, or William Maury, whose intensive coastal surveys synthesized new nautical knowledge in important ways.  Moreover, in an age of global warming–when we need clear precedents of water-levels and coast detail as something like a benchmark for future decades, the production of paper maps hardly seems an appropriate bureaucratic penny-pinching.  The decreased production of paper maps suggests not only a new use of the map as a basis for record keeping, but a decline in the literacy of reading the detail of our formerly exacting coastal surveys from the days of 1862.

But the very shifting of our coast-lines also suggest the need to provide readily available updates of the configuration of coastlines (who would have thought it?) in the wake of meteorological events like Hurricane Sandy or super-typhoon Haiyan, which call for the immediate remapping of a coastal bearings. And the digitized versions of these maps would offer a clearer interface with newly emerging weather patterns, not to mention the scattering on coastlines of debris from nuclear reactors.  At stake is, essentially, whether electronic charts or downloadable PDF’s offer a format removed from the tactile knowledge that is considered the basis of nautical navigation.  If the basis, it is not the sine qua non, but it does provide an  eery bit of evidence of the colonization of GSI of the world of the ocean seas, as the ocean approaches a form of ready scanning and tiling that stands at a far remove from the tactile sense of unknown otherness once associated with them.

With the dominance of the practice of mapping actual position, we may sacrifice the notion of the structuring of voyages exploration along routes of known islands plotted on a global, rather than a local, surface, one senses, together with specific ways of mapping travel in oceanic space or the ocean as a distinctly different medium of travel.


But the question of how we will continue to navigate our coasts with safety of necessity depends more on understandings of precision and efficiency than it is to the range of options of nautical travel.

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Filed under chartplotters, Downloadable maps, Google Car, Google Maps, GPS, Joseph Nigg, Nathaniel Bowditch, Office of Coast Survey, San Francisco Bay

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.

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

Encoding Narratives in Maps

In surveying artists’ maps at the recent symposium “Mapping and its Discontents,” Katherine Harmon celebrated how “creative cartographies” oriented viewers to a narrative about place.  If most of the presentations made viewers re-think the nature of map making as an art and science, Harmon’s attention to how the art of mapping create narratives about place at the symposium sponsored by UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design suggest the inadequacy of separating  “cartography” and “art” by examining the map as an art of orientation–by how maps invite viewers relate lived space to the space that they create.  In a symposium that raised questions about the seductiveness of the ability of how better-defined datasets can make maps that better capture processes we want to describe, it was refreshing to shift focus to how cartographical arts register an individual relation to place.  Indeed, if several papers in the symposium struggled over how to bridge map and narrative–do we need to depend less on maps?  to be seduced less by its promises of truth?–each artist returns to the dialogic relation map instill between viewers by orienting viewers to their content in ways that pose questions about the lack of personal detail in an undifferentiated record of space.

In a sense, the survey of artists’ maps on which Harmon organized and explored exposed the artistic values in which all cartographical practices are embedded.  But they also pointed up the narrative ends to which cartographical forms were so particularly suited as joint representations and explorations of space.  All maps engage their readers’ appetite for knowing a place, and even revise it, by creating a relation–a “map”–between personal knowledge and the residue of collective knowledge distributed in the design of their surface.  The narrative possibilities for registering personal knowledge of space are particularly inviting in such an ostensibly objective framework of geographical denotation:  Harmon called attention to the particularly eloquent transformation or adaptation of how the framework of mapping offers both a compelling and legible text by the forms of “deep mapping” that technology now allows–and the expressive form for deeply personal narratives they offer even as they threaten to lose specific details in the very process of generalizing a record of a uniform space.

In an age where we are deluged by maps in all sectors of life, the tracing of these artistic strategies of mapping seems a recuperation of maps as orienting tools and arts of orientation, and this post surveys some of the maps that she presented, some known from other works, as serving to orient viewers in a practice of mapping that is often too removed or alienated from individual experience.  For the ways that cartography can serve as a practice for engaging our different understandings of space in particularly inventive ways maps both feed cognitive by orienting viewers to place in revisionary (and potentially liberating) ways–by engaging viewers n how they uncover meanings about spaces one already thought one knew or believed to have been recorded in existing maps, by creating dialogue about spatial relations as much as to generalize a record of space.

Harmon’s presentation showed less interest in how to tell stories in a map than in using mapping to register personal familiarity with place, by orienting viewers to the multiple personal networks in a mapped social space.  The “creative cartographies” recuperate the artistic basis of mapping as arts of individual and collective orientation that exploited the structure of synthesizing spatial knowledge in a combination of ways.  The narratives each cartographer creatively located in maps exploit the innate curiosity maps invite by orienting viewers.  Harmon distinguished the narratives that several maps create; the “creative cartographers” all draw connections between the specificity of individual narratives plotted in maps and their structural designs.  If the “discontents” of mapping lay in the anonymity of the maps of public space that were universalized for their readers in many digitized mapping projects and by government planning agencies from Rio di Janiero to Beijing to Ho Chi Minh city to Zagreb to the Google Earth platform, creative cartographers exploit the inventiveness invitations of maps place oneself in space by the power of making meaningful cartographical spaces by balancing them with a personal reading of place.

Harmon invited the symposium to follow how creative maps buck the conceit of large data samples to inscribe maps with the personal meaning from a particular perspective–and in so doing, turn the abstracted nature of cartographical practice on its head, reminding us how such “scientific” practices are embedded in a discourse on the arts.  Indeed, as they engaged scientific practices of cartography, they adopted the tools of mapping in as tools to chart a distinctively individual relation to a known space, rather than a universalized one–or, rather, they novelistically use the format of map-making to universalize the particular situated perception of space that maps rarely include or note.

Harmon emphasized in her own visually stunning and compelling presentation the narrative content in these creative maps as setting into space individual stories about space that pointedly contrast with the de-personalized map and emphasized their own personal knowledge.  She showed a set of creative cartographies that exist in a dialogic relation to our own knowledge of a place, moreover, and, more deeply, out knowledge of objective–as well as subjective–renderings of it, making creative maps particularly neat ways of opening up new perspectives on a space that fence in interesting ways with our own.  Indeed, maps have a unique power to illuminate the relation between our story and our surroundings, as much as to tell stories of their own about how we understand place.

The cognitive webs of connections that maps both embody and render visible and concrete have the effect of never seeing ourselves as isolated.  They rather allow us to map our place in a set of other stories and narratives about place, in ways that are deeply social as well as rooted individual cognition.  And perhaps the most problematic subject of mapping such an individual narrative–or restoring its centrality–is in as frequently a re-mappped event as the September 11 tragedy, whose multiple mapping has accreted more meaning on the event–as if it needed this injection–to erase its personal narratives, and imposed meanings on the event that have almost obliterated our memories of its occurrence, and our relation to its immense tragedy.

It is interesting how she began from 9/11–an event that illustrated the tyranny of the map in the public imagination, and a touchstone for how a local event effectively mapped a geopolitical relationship to the world, albeit a quite distorting one.  The event is not only ripe for re-mapping, but demanded a resourcefulness in using mapping forms to forge new networks of meaning in an over-rehearsed geographic conceit.  The artist Karin Shneider effectively re-mapped our cognitive understanding of events of 9/11–and the cognitive space of the twin towers–that  re-framed memory of their destruction and the death of their unfortunate occupants in plate-glass maps inscribed with the commuter routes those who were tragically killed had taken on that morning as they arrived at work.  The sounds of breaking plate-glass were inseparable for many observers of the twin towers’ collapse on September 11.  In Shneider’s commemorative map, individualized etched glass plates restore both the fragility of their lives, and the integrity of each life that overlapped that day, providing a commemorative cognitive map of the event that viewers to consider how the event tied these lives together so tragically, tracing the routes each took to remind us of the voyages each performed that day.   The set of maps commemorate the deaths of some 2,752 individuals by distilling the circumstances of their spatial intersection, giving specificity to that over-photographed and documented event by emphasizing their now unrecoverable perspectives with the evocation of personal letters or diary entries, so unlike the opacity we usually identify with maps, inviting us to see through their commutes to remember the loss of individual life.  The map of approaches to a final intersection replaces the all too familiar rendering of collision courses of two airplanes on September 11.


9:11 flight paths mapped


Shneider’s composite of overlapping maps remind us of the very difficulty of recuperating individual narratives in such an over-narrated event–mapping the mess of lives that intersected fortuitously that morning, and which will no longer be with us.  They reframe an event too often framed as a war on “terrorism,” “clash of civilizations,” or a sign of barbarity and civilization in distorting and exploitative ways, moreover, giving transparence to the very surface of the map.  The absence of a one narrative that unites these paths is, indeed, a great part of the effectiveness of capturing such multiple individual itineraries within one map.

The decided lack of spatial narrative–but a snapshot summary of the lives that intersected on that day in early September–is evident in a quite different map that, oddly, interestingly emphasized the international origins of those who lost lives that day, perhaps in an attempt to remove its violence from a narrative of opposition, and disturbingly cast the loss of lives in terms of the quite different-order abstraction of individual nations:


wtc world map flags

That map’s argument is disquieting because of how it erases individuality.

Mapping can be a clarification of such tragedy, however.  The far more delicate set of superimposed plate-glass maps Harmon described stands in contrast to the anonymity of this map, or the very disembodied and abstracted map of the routes that these hijacked planes took, by inscribing their paths at a complete remove from individual lives.  Indeed, even the inscription of names of those killed in the event at the site itself on a granite plaque, evocative of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, oddly strips them of individuality–unlike how the reflecting stone surface of the Vietnam War Memorial designed by Maya Lin invites viewers to touch individual names on its surface, as if to try to map abruptly curtailed lives.




The inscription of the names of the dead of 9/11, unlike Maya Lin’s monument, offers no attempt to embody the event–or to express the multiplicity of narratives that that event so tragically condensed.

At another extreme of mapping the 9/11 tragedy lies the grotesque dis-humanized blood-flecked map, so sensationally printed by the New York Post, allegedly based on a map fire-fighters compiled of human remains, as a broadside intended to vilify plans to construct a mosque nearby the site–a map so shockingly dispersive in its energies that rather than embodying the 2,752 deaths it seems to chart, aggressively alarms its viewer with an explosion of meaning impossible to process save by recoiling in horror from its tabulation of human remains near the scene of impact:

Blood-specked map WTC

For if the violently voyeuristic map seeks to dignify the site’s sanctity by delineating the violent loss of life, its superfluity of meaning is something of a recapitulation of violence, attempting to shock the viewer as does the inset photography, by providing some access to the history of the event.

Scheider’s creative cartography also stands in eloquent counterpoint to the abstract cartography of that emptiest of maps, of PATH commuter routes, which she adopts as something of a basis to trace a palimpsest of commutes:




The problem of how maps evoke or shift a familiar narrative motivates the inventive ways itineraries are combined with maps to upend their abstraction, or the spatial oppositions that they create and reify.  Daniel Zeller recuperated the itinerary as a unit of spatial knowledge in imagined maps linking two sites of worship in two different religions by imagining their proximity, and almost delineating an imagined route of pilgrimage that might link their footprints.  Zeller used his deep study of topographic maps and satellite imagery to forge an imagined spatial tie between the Vatican and Masjid al-Haram, the mosque at Mecca, as if to bridge ties between two sites removed from one another in such popular and political discourse alike, by connecting them as if on an individual footpath.  By tracing the footprint of each in graphite, and imagining a windy route of pilgrimage that might actually connect them in “Vatican/al Haram,” using the extreme precision to actively embody and create real spatial ties–


Vatican:Al Haram


–with attentiveness to precision evident in this detail of the links he creatively mapped between both houses of worship.
Zeller Vat al Haram--detail

Departing from digital simulations that often create information overload,  Zeller’s craft-like remapping places with the symbolic continuity that maps create to all too improbably link two sites so often separately segregated in the global imagination.

Bridging divides through a pathway that itself unites or crosses cultures is the theme of Asma Ahmed Shikoh’s beautiful acrylic “Van Wyck Boulevard,” part of her project “Home.”  Shikoh’s art maps her status as a Pakistani artist trained in Karachi who moved to New York:  “Home” brilliantly reclaimed the craft traditions of mapping, recasting the NYC subway map as an Urdu manuscript and within a geometrical design borrowed from the Islamic Al Hambra, in Spain, to reexamine its functional status, and its role as an icon of urban belonging at the same time as mapping a Muslim diaspora–precisely by casting the map of the path of the MTA’s “F” line that took her to her first home in the city.  Shikoh reconfigured the map in a painted form of distinct coloration, engaging its form as well as using language as a tool to assert my identity and make the new place my own.”   The widely reproduced and iconic subway map served as a template to assert and recreate the familiar embodiment of the subway lines as a constellation of meaning invested with a narrative intent that the location of stations on this diagram rarely possesses: only by  “transliterating every stop, was painstaking, repetitive, and yet therapeutic for a newcomer” that traced a narrative through a process of remapping and making the city her own– using the subway map to transcend the increasing construction of a dichotomous divide between East and West, and re-center her identity (and immigrant identity) in the mobile paths of New York City’s subways.

Van Wyck Blvd


Cross-generational mobility was mapped through the shifting degrees of access or familiarity with space across generations in a map of the town of Sheffield, Harmon noted, when Dr. William Bird traced i the limits of known space created across generations living on an aerial view of the city that redefines the mapping of “city limits.”  The chart of the boundaries of a “known world” where children were entitled to walk unaccompanied in Sheffield provides a far more general (and very poignant) map of a demographic group’s relation to space, investing the map with particular narrative and expressive properties beyond that of a spatial register.

How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations (2007) employs the format of aerial photography to map the ambits at which children were allowed to walk on their own in the same neighborhood in one family.  The result of comparing the increasingly restricted spaces parents tolerated wondering illustrates and documents the daramatic contraction of the consderable freedom eight year old George Thomas enjoyed in 1926 in Sheffield.  His parents, not able to afford the tram’s fare, let him to walk six miles to fish on his own.  The erosion of the English commons is a trope of the enclosures of the early nineteenth century, and the lack of urban exploration a more contemporary concern for city-dwellers who find their children less adventurous in making the out of doors their own.  But the more recent specificity of Bird’s roaming map shows the harrowing circumscription of space up to the present:  George’s great-grandson Edward, on a tether of some 300 yards, and with few liberties to roam at will unsupervised, possessed less of a spatial narrative of his relation to the far more industrialized region of Sheffield today, as his mother’s was far diminished from that of his Grandfather Jack or the wide range of space George was trusted to personally navigate.  The narrative of a restricting relation of the person to space in mapped by the narrowing boundary lines in Sheffield:


How Children Lost the Right to Roam


As much as describe the changes in Sheffield’s geography and the story of its expanding industrialization, the map presents a strikingly local microhistory which echoes and encapsulates frequently expressed concerns about the lack of exploring a safe urban space.

It was made in the capacity as health officer to Natural England, to substantiate a concern for Bird’s belief in the benefits access to grassy areas, ponds, and trees brought to kid’s behavior and school work, and question the healthiness of the narrowing relations of space from George, his son Jack, his daughter Vicki and the eight-year-old Ed.  The creativity of these practices of cartography bucks basing maps on their synthesis of a large data sample, by questioning how maps can be creatively rooted in a narrative of individual experience, even in ways that preserve their value as a collective register of the experience of space–and how a Google Maps template might be distinctly personalized as a record of spatial knowledge.

Discontents with Google Earth maps lie precisely in the deeply problematic recuperation of a cartographical art that they perpetuate for their users.  And so Jeff Sisson focussed on the spatial meanings and consequences of the threatened disappearance of the Bodega as an institution and anchor to urban communities in New York by crafting an interactive Bodega Map within the city’s expanse.  In charting the survival of a store central to communities across different neighborhoods, the map almost anticipated the recent turn against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York that the recent De Blasio victory seems to portend.  In tracing the footprint of the institution of the Bodega, Sisson selects stores pressed out of existence in the absence of rent control for shops in the city’s expansive real estate market, and provide evidence of a vanishing urban culture of diversity.

Sisson’s website invites all visitors to place Bodegas in local neighborhoods to elevate the individual discovery of a community store, in an exercise of collective crowd-sourced participatory mapping that displaces the archipelagic city’s usual contour lines by rather trying to map the local meanings of these distinctive and useful stores within local communities, in ways that invite one to insert one’s narrative connection to the colorful local Bodega so long an urban fixture situated at odd street-corners, combining such mapping resources as Google Earth, Google Maps, and Flickr snapshots of facades and marquees of individual family run stores.

Bodega Map



The project “Mapping Bodegas” tracks processes of micro-urbanism, by marking sites of interaction and stages to which communities respond, to reflects on the danger of their erasure from the city’s map and its neighborhoods, as well as to preserve meaningful “hot-spots” of collective memory within outlines of the specific neighborhoods they nourished.  This infusion of narrative content is, to be sure, one reaction or response to the universalized abstraction of an anodynely marked places of interest in the space of Google maps, with something approaching a zero-degree of the denotative signs of registering affect or place.  It is in reaction to this lack of narrative that Adam Bartholl staged his public sculpture “Map,” creatively appropriated the blandly uniform “inverted tears” of a Google map push pins by placing these physical objects in the very center of Arles–on the hexadecimal longitude and latitude GoogleEarth uses to denote Arles.

The discontent with the abstraction of our knowledge of place in Google Earth led Adam Bartholl to remind us of the increased distance between iconic cartographical markers Google employs so blithely in its tiles and knowledge of places they denote.  By the co-option or appropriation of the sign of place in geolocation practices in the public square of Arles, Harmon argued, Bartholl reminded us how the marker shapes (and fails to capture) our sense of place, as we use it to make our narratives of travel:  by placing a larger than life physical embodiment of such a dayglo pushpin in the exact center of Arles’ public square on the altitude and longitude where it occurs in Google Earth, Bartholl asked us to confront a physical embodiment of a sign we too often internalize without interrogating its affectless muteness as a sign as itself a denaturing of place.




Arles?  It happened right here . . .


On a more political level of the silences concealed in many maps, and the environmental consequences of these silences, Harmon turned to the failures of mapping ecological disasters of Bonga oil spill and  transformation of the Niger delta.  What are the limits of Google maps in tracking the multiple levels of ecological disaster within the Delta, seat to a preserve of some 600 million barrels of recoverable oil mapped in 2001, but whose mapping silenced the complex narrative of regional toxic pollution that has spun out around those platforms and oil rigs.



The delta, an oil-rich area long plagued by irresponsible levels of annual oil spillage greater than in the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, is a site of widespread flares on rigs, and, as a very poor area where oil was found close to the surface, of dirty DIY oil refining and extraction have created deep-set ecological disasters through the Delta–over 7,000 spills from 1970 to 2000, some spewing at least 9 million barrels of crude into wetlands that sustain millions of local trades from fishing to agriculture, and where consistently poor clean-up of spills have eroded increasingly fragile local communities and economies in an image that, viewed from space, appears both ecologically fragile and remarkably pristine.



How to map the devastating ravages to the local environment, whose production the Nigerian government is economically dependent, is particularly problematic since the oil-rich delta is the source of 90% of the country’s foreign earnings.  Regular under-reporting of spills by NOSDRA–the Nigerian Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency–to keep in line with corporate claims led to a failure to register the escape of up to 60,000 barrels of oil in 2011  from one Floating Production Storage and Offloading Facility at the Niger delta’s mouth by Shell oil (Nigeria’s major client) in Bonga, or 1979 spill of 570,000 barrels of crude, also by Royal Shell–eroding the environment all up the Delta, by the devastating toxic effects of acid rain that are only starting to be mapped–from the ruin of coastal livelihoods and fisheries to deadening formerly plentiful fields of kola nuts.

How to map or embody the narrative of the destruction of an ecosystem?  This time-lapse map seems as disembodied as Vassily Kandinsky’s “Einige Krise,” but charted decade-long oil flares in surrounding coastal waters spewing crude into the air, in color-coded fashion since the expansion of oil drilling in the Deepwater Bonga project since 1993–blue from 1995; green 2000; red 2006–as the outlines of an ecological disaster since deepwater drilling began–and whose mapping almost defies narrative:


Several Circles


If the agglomeration of colored dots in this time-lapse map suggests pattern, the distribution mirrors the division of the Delta and surrounding waters by prospecting leases for locally administered oil fields since 1993, but only starts to map the disastrous consequences for the environment of this massive release of crude into the ecosystem and its local economy:


Deep Prospect Nigeria Oil and Gas Concessions Map - Deep-Prospect

While the slick produced at Deepwater was not at first mapped, it occurred on a 2011 Google Earth view charting oil slick on the ocean’s surface:

Bonga Bongo Delta in Niger Delta-Nnimmo


This map provided one of the few media sources documenting the Bonga spill not provided by Royal Shell Oil itself.  Indeed, it only starts to track the implications of the spills, fires, and leaks in the Delta that constitute the largest wetlands in all Africa rich with swamps, estuaries, rivers and streams, and can only suggest the extent to which forests and mangroves are being polluted by spills from a network of pipelines, acid rain, and water-borne or rain-borne oil slick–rain regularly returns drops of crude oil to formerly fertile region–where oil is relatively close to the surface has led to a distortion of the environmental perils of oil extraction–and over one thousand abandoned oil spill sites in the over-drilled Delta, with huge environmental consequences–often blamed on the ships that regularly illegally siphon crude from the pipelines that criss-cross the delta.




Google Earth views used by Sky Truth to map the 2011 Shell Deepwater spill barely chart the environmental devastation on the Delta rivers.   The map that almost leaves one speechless in how the beauty of its sinuous detail chart the slicks of oil that have contaminated a once-healthy delta’s agricultural wealth; this NOAA aerial photography created by the United States Navy rebut the oil multinational’s silence as to the spill’s scope or devastating consequences, whose silences have only recently been targets of international blame, and obscured some 474 spills in one area during 2012 alone.  Perhaps  the recent expansion of Nigerian crowd-sourced mapping projects may shift these cartographical silences, but the burden for mapping the disaster has not been met.


Deepwater Spill Nigeria

Shell Deepwater Spill



The narratives that these aerial image of considerable beauty recover present a counter-narrative to that of the corporations that distanced themselves from the Bonga spill, and perhaps a case of maps speaking truth to authority.  These maps begin to tell a story of the transformation of the land–and the destruction of the environment they map.  These maps foreground new narratives about the Google Earth format that invite a broader story to be told about the event, and to fill the silence of Shell’s official narrative about the quantity or causes for the massive spill–and the blanket denial that any of the oil ever reached the coastline, and all barrels were successfully dispersed in the ocean waters, and seek “unconditional license to contain and disperse the Bonga oil spill” itself.  Without these Google maps, Shell Oil would have retained a monopoly about the production of truth about the devastating Bonga spill.


Sleipner A


Can a narrative emerge of this event from the perspective of those who dwell in the Delta, to capture the consequences of the toxic transformation of the land they live and work in, or those for its non-human inhabitants?

Some semantic possibilities of expanding the ecological narrative of place were suggested in the tracking of growth of Chesapeake Bay grasses,  in a mapping project using data to track changes in the growth and density of grasses around the largest estuary in the United States particularly illustrative of the subtleties of overlaps to achieve the sort of deep mapping that Google Earth would not allow.  The Stamen interactive map frames a unique narrative of the restoration of the estuary ecosystem incorporating data from over forty years across some forty years, redirecting data to create an image of where the estuary might later develop:  the time-sensitive visualization of data about salinity, water-temperature and bathymetry with the restorations of bay grasses who are the subject of this narrative of ecological restoration, to offer a powerful–and positive–interactive map about the local recuperation of environmental health, by synthesizing a wide range of data from the EPA officials and local institutions about an area to reverse effects of chemical pollutants on wildlife and grasslands that viewers can read or virtually explore as unfolding over time, in ways that press against the technological boundaries of cartography as an art.


Chesapeake Bay Program


If this graphic visualization of the watershed appears a document only of the growth of grasses, as we unpack the map we realize the expanse of the effects of the possibly narratives of human interventions in the landscape that it presents–both on the ecosystem of the estuary and to possibilities of our future relation to that very dynamic environmental space–a space we better know through our more multi-leveled representations of it.

The art of registering knowledge of place has expanded to comprehend new personal individual narratives of fine grain by a GPS revision of the Google Map view of a city.  Indeed, the maps of Christian Nolde and Ingrid Burrington both seek to recuperate the density of specific narratives of encounters in urban space that echo and engage the emerging forms of mapping by which Google seeks to plot points of interest for its users on the maps of cities that they visit, so that they might include selected points of interest, sites of beauty to visit, or local stores and commercial districts of interest judging by one’s web history.  Both Nolde and Burrington used GPS to create a synthesis of these individualized maps of the city in ways that anticipated the announcement of Google’s plans.

Christian Nolde employed GPS technologies to register of feelings related to place in his emotional map of San Francisco (2007), created during a tenure at Northern Exposure.  After collecting on data gathered by a galvanic skin response by which participants’ physiological responses, he keyed them to places that he transposed to a GPS map of the city’s locations, as if to trace itineraries in a city usually mapped by city blocks or along district lines.  The maps seeks to register responses to a location or geographic environment on individual emotions, in a sort of counter-map synthesized individual responses into something like an encounter with places of specific individual resonance in the city, in a record “visualizing the emotional space of the city” by objectively tracing an alternate topography in 2007.


Emotional Map SF


This map has a texture of accommodating the individual storyline or narrative that makes its reading an active part of its enjoyment, by engaging individual storylines in a dazzling if fragmentary novelistic detail, challenging the legibility of the map’s surface of significant local depth for readers who can take the time to delve into the map to read the actions that its maker associated with a specific place, but which would be ‘overlooked’ by scanning the broader path of his itineraries across the city:


detail SF emotion map

GPS was used, in other words, to contextualize multiple narrative fragments in a composite view of the emotional significance of urban space  by tracing if a residue of collective emotions on its surface.  The completed artifact combines multiple spaces of reading, augmenting the notions of position that he noted in GPS at specific way stations by his own transient or apparently ephemeral personal reaction to the city at a specific place–“beautiful street with lovely houses”; “went into my house and got my mail”; “This is where I had the bike accident”; “i was remembering a person I had a major relationship with whose parents lived here”–that foreground the personal in ways GPS cannot alone register.

The practice of GPS creates a synthesis of discrete meanings rarely associated with geospatial mapping, and puts a premium on emotional or associative precision, as much as the abstraction of terrestrial locations.  A similar desire to base a map on personal narratives to record the city as an emotive space led Ingrid Burrington to take data from Craig’s List “missed connections” as the data to reveal a hidden distribution of the desire for half-glimpsed connections in her “Loneliness Map” (2009-11), included in an earlier exhibit of personal maps Harmon earlier curated.

The map’s unique pinpoint form focusses observers’ attention on mini-moments of “missed connections” in the course of the day against a map of physical topography and street intersections, as if to present the variations among missed connections as an emotional terrain or urban psychogeography, creating a new sense of reading mapped data to register a notion first used by situationists such as Guy Debord.



Burrington--Missed Connections


Such collected ‘mini-moments’ trump the topography of the city, tracking personal attachment to selective moments in urban space as more meaningful than the mapping of the outlines of its streets that create a new experience of reading the map’s surface.  They recall the Mappiness (LSE) smartphone app, which disrupts the relative abstraction of space in a GPS framework by registering our own states of happiness on a map.

The map becomes a site to register individual travels through the city in a collective document, or a capacious holder of narratives, as tangible with resonance as any map might ever be.  And the very tangibility of this record of encounter that maps allow, even with limited qualitative content, suggest the underlying basis of cartography as an art.

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Filed under 9/11, Art and Cartography, Chesapeake Bay, Google Earth, Google Maps, Guy Debord, Jeff Sisson, Karin Shneider, Katherine Harmon, Mapiness, Mapping and its Discontents, Mapping Bonga deepwater drilling, Masjid al-Haram, Niger Delta, Stamen design

The Map is Dead–Long Live the Map!

Participants at the symposium Mapping and Its Discontents debated the benefits of the near-ubiquity of uniform mapping systems sponsored and orchestrated by Google in our lives.  Many of the wonderful papers tried to suggest the benefits that mapping served as alternate ways of making visible the unseen and giving voice to the silenced–but did so with deep skepticism of the dominance of Google Map’s blandly undifferentiated surface, both as a sort of collective erasure of knowledge, and a sinister synthesis of gathering meaning about individuals’ consumption habits.  In this somewhat hopeful symposium, whose speakers urged the audience to go forth and map, Denis Wood offered a skeptical history of mapping as a form of art, focussing less on its craft than on the contexts in which it was read and exchanged–and the historical “explosions” of map making as a tool of state-making.

Although Scott McCloud does trace comics back through cave paintings and the Bayeux tapestry, something we recognize as a comic book it to printing and mass-production of paper in the mid-nineteenth century, the printed ephemera Alan Aldridge and George Perry first identified as antecedents to  the sort of fantastic album art he produced, we don’t see much we would recognize as a map until printing, Wood argues–and that the fifteenth century is a good place to start the history of maps.  But rather than peg the map to the material practices of the production of information, the ways of embodying information and need to embody networks of spatial organization reflect the new need of an emerging modern nation-state–as well, he might add, though he omitted it yesterday, the need to straighten out clear bounds of contact and digest the discovery of new worlds.  (One might object that rather than leave this entity of the “state” so monolithic, dual origins of causation can be seen in the Renaissance, both as a period of contact with new worlds and that gave currency to the creation of newly imagined worlds–the “other Green world” of Harry Berger–as joint ground in the poetics of making, reading, and reproducing the map.)

As longtime interrogator of the power of maps and enfant terrible of the cartographical establishment, Wood’s opening salvo called attention to how print helped differentiate the standardization of shared practice of mapping space from the genealogy, charter, systems of notation, almanacs, calendars, or rolls, maps served to conjure the state to existence in its graphic performance–and to conjure the state, in ways repeated in histories of Japan, Siam, and the United States, as Elizabeth Berry, Thongchai Winichakul, and Martin Bruckner have shown, as a natural object, when it was not before.  Any attempt to naturalize the map either as a depiction of the world’s surface or universalize its documentary function, he noted, including the celebration of the recent democratization of mapping skills that seem to dislodge authority from the map’s form, passes over the map’s role in the state and state formation as a form of spatial intelligence and spatial intelligibility.

We might do well to look for origins, Wood proffered, by asking exactly when it became a slur on a civilization that it does not use maps–or couldn’t read them.  The question was enticing because of how it raised questions of the ties of map making less as an instrumental tool of dominance over space, than a standard of civilization and knowledge–a standard of the sort that Graham Greene evoked in his postwar visit to Liberia, Journey without Maps (1949).  Although Greene’s visit to the colonial outpost was certainly a product of Africa’s partial colonization by European industry, and the end of English empire, his account reflects Wood’s point that maps exists only where social relations call for them exist:  that where talk serves, maps are rare; but that when talk becomes inadequate, alternative graphic forms of communications develop within the state–of which the map plays a central role.  Greene beautifully if parsimoniously evoked the elderly toothless man with whom he shared a boat ride at the end of his 1946 journey who suddenly approached him with a piece of pressing news:  “‘Do you know that in Monrovia they have a map of the whole of Liberia?  I’m going there to see it.  It is in the possession of a family called Anderson.  They have had it for years,'” he says wonderingly, suggesting amazement at the foreign family of colonizers who possess a map of the entire country in which he lives.  “‘Sinoe is marked on it,'” he continues, “‘and Grand Bassa and Cape Palmas,'” repeating what he has been told by others, but never having seen a map of his entire land.  The encounter might well have been invented by Greene, but created a topos for the encounter between the map-literate and native that presumed an eagerness for encountering a map–the map seems a sort of lodestone–that might be either a western fantasy or a deeper discovery of a land where, absent the myth of colonial organization, the residents don’t know maps, or an illustration of deep ties of mapping to the civilizing process delineated by Norbert Elias.

Printing allowed the map to penetrate the lives of people about 1500, unlike other forms of data-keeping:  for the creation of a map that penetrated the lives of ordinary people and readers effectively under-wrote social relations of power in very concrete, linking territory to other things in ways that advanced the making of maps and shifted the role of mapping as an enterprise:  we count only a few thousand maps prior the growth of the nation, but an explosion of the production of maps in the sixteenth and seventeenth century occurred of the sorts of which was never known, and parallels the map’s entry into individuals’ lives to a degree that never occurred earlier–a notion, as Wood long ago argued, of “map-literacy.”

Nations were indisputably the new arenas of this move to mapping, unlike the printed maps that were widely sold in Italian city-states or the Netherlands.  Earlier maps such as cosmological charts, star maps, or property charts of the Babylonian period or in Japan and England had legal purposes, but quite different from large-scale graphic property function in varied places around the world, and without participating in a map-making tradition in projects such as the mapping efforts of Phillip II to create detailed records of imperial possessions in the Mediterranean, or the huge map making projects of Louis XIV and Colbert that are tied directly to the state and to the material recreation of state sovereignty.  (Of course, this raises the question as to why maps first emerged as forms for advancing epistemic claims and embodying places in areas that were less clear as examples of the modern state, like Italian city-states or sites without empires like the Netherlands or whether the imaginative ends of mapping can be separated from their administrative ends.  Wood sees them as being as tightly tied as the sides of the same Moebius strip.)

It is in this arena of the state, Wood forcefully argued, that we can see the inauguration of modern topographical functions from real estate, to prisons, to cellphone use, to voting practices, to states rights, to a point at which we can’t consider life without maps.  The date 1500, far from being one of convenience, is something like a benchmark or velocity point for the new roles that maps began to play and that they continued to assume today–a point of no return, as it were, of the sort Ian Hacking drew to mark the emergence of probability at the date 1660.  Only after 1500, or in later periods, did mapping emerge as a way of life, Wood insisted:  if some fourteenth-century monks drew plans of their monastery, the idea was not widely or even narrowly pursued as a basis for collating evidence, or followed up on in ways that reflect the multiple functions maps came to assume.  There is a bit of utopianism here:  whereas human societies didn’t need maps, and got on well without them before 1200, he argued, noting rights and properties’ specific attributes in other ways,  the map’s discourse-function failed to develop itself as a means to exploit strategic resources and to have operable use and currency.  While he recognized the evidence of the creation of maps in Song-era China within select parts of well-established bureaucracies, only later did maps gain a large discourse-function of operability.   This may be a bit of a slippery logic, but argues that the “map” had new meaning at a certain point as an object of exchange, and that no properties inherent to its design exist save as such an object of exchange.  So much for its formal attributes.

Wood marked the birth of the map that is now perhaps dead  at this sort of a watershed:  in 1400, few used maps; by 1600, maps became inseparable from social functions in a global context that is itself only beginning to be mapped.  The abundance of eighteenth-century maps in China, or in the seventeenth century in Japan, and in Vietnam from the 15th and 16th century, and Mesoamerican and Malay maps in 16th century, are traditions that inaugurated in the early modern state.  Indeed, there is a weight of evidence to shift this change in the growth of European knowledge, and it reflects a massive rise of needs for map making to ensure border control, water management, land reclamation, military needs that just exploded with the state.  If even in Florence, Italy few maps exist from before 1565, Florentine, Neapolitan and Milanese mapping projects all exploded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as they did in seventeenth century Japan, when thousands of government maps issue in Japan, and maps served to perform the form of statehood.  

What changed, Wood argues,  was that then new political structure of impersonal construction demanded new forms for its embodiment, and gained a propositional function that was absent from earlier map making traditions–a propositional function that was necessitated and called into creation by the state.  He recalled how Martin Bruckner showed how the image of the national map of the United States staked the proposition that there could be a tenable unity among this expansive nation, much as imperial maps of Britain tried to persuade readers on both sides of continent of imperial possession of north american content, as an artifact of state–both of these cases illustrate the new tangibility that the map assumed as a means of calling the expansive relation of the state into existence by the graphic performance of statehood that was newly enacted in the printed map, and which the map served to make legible.  As Thongchai has shown in his work on Siam, maps served to produce the very “geobodies” that become totemic through the map’s presentation of the state, creating a sense of unity not familiar to many, but able to normatize a nascent polity, and to instruct countless participants in the construction of our country–even without a clear idea of citizenship.  The skill of state apparatus lay in bringing routine of state practices to a larger audience, as Valerie Kivelson argues in Russia, down to a lower level of reading–as the map served, both in Japan and elsewhere, multiple function to against the images of other states and other imaginative constructions.  Identical patterns of map-use can be found in these cultures, and, not surprisingly, in the post-WWII state of Israel, founded in part by European Jews:  in each place, maps affirm the state, the state affirms the map, summoning unity from . . . chaos.

The medium of the map and its power as a form of synthesis arises as a new form of narration when other forms of narrative do not suffice–it is both the master-narrative and originary myth of the modern state.  And, indeed, maps have become so powerful to bring objects into being in concrete terms, that it would be impossible to discuss otherwise in a multitude of ways–from the nation to the distribution of electoral politics to the spread of fires to the ozone hole to El Nino.


Footprints of Actively Burning Fires--Google Map

Ozone Loss Map


The credence that maps create by linking subjects of propositions to a specific code enables these new subjects to be discussed, and in linking subjects of propositions like the state to the code inherent in mapping, and to real relations in the world, maps can come to signify the world, and networks of causation within it, as well as prospective statements for its future.  As Wood wrote in an earlier context, “Insisting that something is there is a powerful way of insisting that something is.  Mapped things–no matter how conceptually daunting–possess such extraordinary credibility because they’re capable of propelling into popular discourse abstruse abstractions:  high-pressure cells, El Nino, seafloor spreading, thermohaline circulation.”  Or global warming, or the the expanding ozone hole, earthquake swarms, or the global threats of desertification of arable land.  These curious abstractions enter public debate as concrete terms, if never clearly grasped, based on their cartographical realization.  It is, of course, only because of maps that these very issues can become contentious foci of public debate.


Tracing Sandy--Time Map

Prognosticating hurricane_sandy_map


The map serves double-duty a representation or a cloak, Wood makes clear.  Its two-fold duties are so effective to make creative practices of map making disappear, to make states affirm their role as real things of nature–even as maps obscured their own existence in the reasons of the state itself.   And if it’s hard to imagine that these artifacts as nations or concepts like ozone could come into creation, without the creative functions of the map, the wonder of the map is to link subjects of proposition signified (State) with signifiers constituted by their code–and to signify the world.  This might explain their clear currency as a form of realizing the make-believe, or fantastic, with a sense of actual concreteness by delineating a credible topography with which we can visually interact–especially while reading a text, and in whose creation we can indeed vicariously share, so powerfully creative do they affect their readers.

The use of maps to lend credence to propositions in the early modern world led them to embody abstractions from the map of “Utopia” Thomas More pointedly included in his dialogue of the same name, the maps of emotions Mme. de Scudery devised as Cartes de Tendre, or Jonathan Swift’s maps of Lilliput and Blefescu or Gunniland in his “proposal for correcting modern maps,” or–and here we leap centuries–modern ancestors such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, whose fantastic claims to embodiment in maps extend all the way up to map of Middle Earth–and to those Christopher Tolkein subsequently expanded–whose publication and currency, he argued, led anyone with a computer software applications to make maps from Grand Theft Auto to map art, as map is congenial subject of exhibition.

More Utopia Map


Carte de Tendre

But are not these maps playful inversions of the operative roles of maps as tools of state–orchestrated by figures with close state roles, as More and Swift?  The role of middle-range cartographers from E.H. Shepherd to Christopher Tolkein to Jules Feiffer, to trace one genealogy, seems quite distinct.



Is the state’s stranglehold on cartography at last weakening, much as Wood asserts, even with the diffusion of mapping platforms and the availability of digital mapping tools?  Wood detects a twilight of the age of the paper map as leading to an end of the dominant role that maps of states once enjoyed as vehicles to view boundaries and confines of state possession and areas of juridical control.  This does not mean that maps are less used by the state.  But that the map is less the gripping tool of engagement whose history he has traced since circa 1500, the magic date from which maps were, he argued, so instrumental in conjuring the subject of the state and so successful in naturalizing its truth claims as part of our world.  This may be curious, because of the proliferation of digitized maps that defines potentially unwieldy concepts–global warming; the ozone hole; hurricane Sandy’s path; plankton algae bloom distributions–that can be latched onto in public debate and, occasionally, grasped.  Or, on a humanitarian level, the sort of crowd-sourced map of deaths in Syria’s civil wars, legibly tracking a succinct geographic table of the distributions of killings, rapes, revenges, and poisonings or the humanitarian disasters of the Syrian refugees whose number has far surpassed two million.

Crowd-Sourced Mapping of killings, rapes, revenges and poisoning


Syrian Refugee Crisis


We can also distinguish better and worse attempts to map  tragic humanitarian disasters among these visualizations.

One may, indeed, ask what constitutes the state today–and try to map it–or try to define to the widespread distribution of mapping functions within states.  Wood presented the insanely rising prices of old maps sold at auctions today as making something of a mockery of the idea that states so monopolizes the use of maps that it cannot but illustrate state functions.  But are not these maps, now evacuated of meaning and illusions of power, disquietingly assuming a role, retrospectively, as images of a world where power worked differently, or of an age when the design of maps was performed with such due diligence and care?

But Wood is perhaps too happy to say goodbye to the map.  If this grammar is not that much less operative, is it true that the state’s stranglehold on cartography is now weakening or has weakened?  Or that cartography–and the illusion of the map–has outlived its function as a basis to visualize the nation?  Wood doesn’t find that the state can any longer repeat the trick of naturalizing its own presence through the operations of naturalizing with GIS tools, partly because of their lack of similar persuasive skills.  But if it may be argued that the state has no need for the same truth-claims any more, as they are, somehow, finding themselves to be outdated, that doesn’t mean that the collective power of mapping does not exist outside the purview of the state, and as an activity of resistance and calling into being new information, as several other papers delivered at the same conference by Annette Kim and Rebecca Solnit showed.

But although maps arose in needs of nation state to take on form, and organize its interests, rather than seeing some sort of triumphalism continuing in the use of maps to shore up the nation-state, from Raleigh, NC, Wood doesn’t see the map as doing that good a job even as a tool of surveillance.  And he sees the use of maps to call attention to historical practices, and even to restore historical landscapes, as well as address issues of social justice, as marginal to the disappearance of the map as a tool of state control.  The declining efficacy of the sort of operations that maps were able to accomplish, he notes, seem to have contributed–notwithstanding the omnipresence of maps in our lives–to its declining authority, more than a ‘democratization of mapping’ can be celebrated. But as the functions of state-power also seem to be less clearly visualized–and preserved–by means of maps in an increasingly interdependent world where the concept of the boundaries of a map have less meaning as fabricating a category or signifier out of whole cloth, perhaps the map would enjoy new versatility as a tool outside the rubric of the state that so long sponsored it.

If one can talk about a geohumanities that extends beyond those with digital expertise, who engage in studying and producing the culture, that would depend on understanding of ‘map making’ not only as a practice, but as a verb engages other contexts, and a verb that offers something like a grammar in conversation that is specific to the map as an object, distinct from other accumulations of evidence, as well as appreciating the role of mapping as an art.  If in an age of such widespread collations and ordering of evidence, the paper map–and the official map–is somehow rendered obsolete, even as multiple maps continue to wage authority in ordering our lives.  But the ubiquity of Google Maps can be resisted, if only by making its origins better known, and its the limits of its practices evident.  To be seduced by their objectivity is surely to ignore the continued power that maps still have.  If maps continue to offer such a pleasurable area of exploration in Grand Theft Auto and other media, it seems likely that personal meanings maps afford provide not just diversions in the esthetics of map making, but appropriations of an all too familiar authoritative form to define boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, trace networks of meaning, and give stability to collective entities, even in the age of the slippy maps fabricated by Google that convert declassified satellite photographs to easily downloadable tiles.

Wood’s prognostication of the death of the map seems premature.  Perhaps we, as consumers of digitized information, pay attention to its grounding in geographic reality and its operations, and are also less susceptible to the sequestered codes contained within maps, or the truth claims of a single map’s persuasive form.   Perhaps the map’s near-ubiquity cannot but decrease its authority.  But we do seem to stand at the brink of a future where mapping is ever-present as a form of surveillance; perhaps a society in which power has learned to work in new ways, unmoored from maps to define power and realize or recognize its bounds, but has adopted mapping forms as dispersive ways to organize power claims.  But in this society, maps can gain new power as media to realize networks of which too few seem aware.

Wood suggests that the map is dead, perhaps, as a useful tool of conversion in the arena of state.  If the act of mapping seems less clearly situated in the arena of the state, or less dominated by the state, this does not mean that maps are media that don’t still mystify relations of power.  And if the leaks of Edward Snowden have shown that the state is surveilling us to a far greater extent than ever imagined was the case, Wood found little evidence that that has made so much of a difference, or that that helps states do much of a better job.  The query cannot but arise in response:  did the map ever do that much of a functional job, or only a basis for imagining a state that performed its functions well?  Long live the map, perhaps as a form of counter-mapping.

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Filed under Google Maps, infographics, mapping state interests, maps and state formation, newsmaps