“As Google Maps Renames Neighborhoods, Residents Fume”

Read this thing about how Google Maps names neighborhoods that locals don’t recognize. Here’s my take:

The history of cartography is a narrative dominated by outsiders mapping lands to which they are strangers because locals don’t generally need maps of their own communities. More importantly, conquering people do not see much utility in local subjects mapping themselves of their own authority. Voyeurism is not an essential quality of map making but it is present in the vast majority of that which manages to survive. Cartography, that is the design of the map, is the face of map making. It is communication and like any other form of communication, the one who holds the microphone or the camera or the publishing company has power and the history of mapping is long, nasty and ugly even or perhaps particularly when done out of “objectivity.” Maps have been used to fence people in, divide communities, sell real estate and classify differences between people that are celebrated as fact for generations because maps, like the printed word, are seen as vastly more authoritative than they deserve. They are treated like dictionaries when they should be analyzed like documentaries.

As modern cartographers, we have incredible tools and unprecedented access to data but are our morals fundamentally different than our colonial predecessors? Do we still think our field has more high ground than others? Do we still have the hubris to use the limited data we have as if they were delivered on stone tablets from Mt Sinai and not question where it came from or how it affects people? Do we assume ours is the only way to see the world?

All maps lie. I believe that (almost) all maps have purpose and power and that none has all the answers. If a map were perfectly accurate it would be a 1:1 scale model of the entire universe and it would be of no use to anyone. So we summarize, clip, abridge and stylize the world into something digestible and perusable and useful and from our single shared reality there is an infinite number of such maps that can be produced, all with their own nuggets of truth and value to some audience, even if it is an audience of one.

Google is now providing the government of China with a censored internet search engine. It makes folks like me very uncomfortable. While we in the free world enjoy access to a deep well of public knowledge, what is the functional difference between monopoly and only using and trusting one map out of convenience? In Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian vision was that authoritarian governments would burn books. Perhaps more relevant today, in Brave New World, the dystopia was that no one would even want to read books. The same warnings should be taken for maps. At the risk of sounding like a Flat-Earther, the maps we use have been curated for us and to see past that construction we have to be willing to take on some of the inconvenience of skepticism and consume more than just the maps made for us if we want to understand the world.

The greatest enemy of cartography and the greatest threat that cartography presents to society is the hegemony of maps and the paring down of cartographic diversity. When Google owns the lion’s share of the data and has one way of displaying it, Google becomes “The Map” that we all use and believe, and that is as dangerous and disheartening and hobbling to a thinking society as when we allow a language to be forgotten. This isn’t about naming neighborhoods. This is about communities defining for themselves who they are and being able to present their competing world view to the rest of our species and be believed. It doesn’t bother me that much that it happens in San Francisco but it genuinely scares me that it is happening around the world and we don’t think twice about it. Google Maps is an incredible tool, a miracle of technology and labor and science and I use it almost every day. But we need to remember that it is one way to see the world and we should try to fulfill the promise of the internet by not letting one company monopolize either the information or the assumed authority of correctness.

Maps, conservation, insects, film, boats, scuba diving

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