The Hidden Danger of the ‘Omniscient’ Mapmaker

Google Earth on multiple monitors [source: Wikimedia]Google Earth on multiple monitors [source: Wikimedia]

The ‘Apollonian Dream’

In the Information Age of the twenty-first century, the ‘Apollonian dream’ of cartography – to gaze at the earth from above like the Greek god Apollo – has been fully realised. Today we can physically, as well as imaginatively, look down at the surface of the globe from orbiting satellites, capturing this view with photographic imagery and surveying technology, and digitally mapping this information through Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Data is then accessed through online geospatial applications, which combine geographical information with computer software. The most prominent of these, Google Earth, has been downloaded by more than half a billion people in an online global community of around two billion. Using the application, a 3D virtual globe can be rotated, tilted, and panned; places and physical objects can be clicked to provide more information; directions and destinations can be plotted around GPS locations; and users can zoom down through layers of data. Within seconds, we can travel from thousands of miles above the earth to within a few metres of its surface, presented with photo-real images. Many have praised GIS such as Google Earth as a revolutionary new way of viewing the world, constituting the first convincing attempt at creating a mirror-world or simulacrum of the earth.

Yet, despite the ubiquity and power of these recent technological developments, we have largely failed to analyse their potential implications for the way we view the earth. Indeed, anything approaching an understanding of these developments and their significance is necessarily still to be written, as the technology continues to evolve on an almost daily basis.

Participatory Potential

For anyone who uses Google Earth on a regular basis the advantages and potential of such software may seem self-evident. As Jerry Brotton, historian and author of The History of the World in Twelve Maps, has suggested:

“In less than a decade, Google Earth has not just set the standard for these applications, but has led to a complete re-evaluation of the status of maps and the future of mapmaking, allowing maps to appear more democratic and participatory than ever before. It seems that anywhere on the earth can potentially now be seen and mapped by anyone online, without the inevitable subjective bias and prejudice of the cartographer.”

In its current form, Google Earth allows users to engage with its spatial world in countless ways. By creating ‘placemarks,’ a location or multiple locations can be saved. By geotagging photos and other media, image overlays and embedded videos can be added to a location. Custom maps can be created, to share and publish online. The advancements made by emerging GIS programs facilitates spatial debate within maps, opens new levels of interactivity and user agency, and allows non-professionals to engage in these activities. Searching with this software now involves interacting with the opinions and memories of innumerable other users, each a cartographer of their own insular world. A landmark is seen through a thousand tourist camera lenses, a restaurant is experienced through the reviews of a hundred disgruntled customers. The muted, lifeless tones of the pre-digital map are consigned to the past; this is now a humanised globe, personal and meaningful to each user and viewer.

This democratisation of maps has been lauded as marking a distinct era in the history of cartography. While maps of the past were designed with a specific purpose in mind – religious evangelisation, nautical navigation, colonial domination – the distribution of such a variety of maps with such a variety of uses marks a profound shift. The Mercator projection is a prime example. The most widely-used cartographic structure since the sixteenth century, it features everywhere from classroom walls to scholarly books, and infamously produces a huge distortion of continental sizes, privileging an inflated northern hemisphere over a subordinated southern hemisphere. In the past few decades, critics have denounced the Mercator projection as perpetuating Eurocentric, imperialist ideologies; such controversies are testament to a developing cartographic consciousness, with the emerging realisation that the maps of the past offer a highly particular, and political, perspective.

The monolithic mapping of the past is over. Digital mapping applications offer a powerful tool to overthrow the explicit dominance of a single worldview, with the ability to access a wider range of maps in an online realm allowing users to visualize the earth in limitless ways. Far from speaking to us with one voice, that of the single mapmaker, digital maps have millions of different voices, each articulating the space of the globe in a different way.

There is, however, also a profound danger in such developments, as more sinister changes are masked under the guise of neutral and objective technology.

The Question of Objectivity

One reason that GIS technologies often avoid critique is their use of satellite and aerial imagery. The photographic image has undergone intense scrutiny in regard to its status as an index of reality. Yet the photograph still holds a perceived connection to material space that is unmatched by traditional, hand-crafted maps; the ‘objectivity of the camera’ is an idea that all too often remains unchallenged. This is extended even further as, while photographs are often associated with a photographer as ‘witness,’ taking the picture at a particular moment in time, satellite and aerial photographs used in programs like Google Earth are more commonly associated with the machinery that produces them. This distances digital maps from a creator, and creates a disembodied visualization that positions the observer not only above the surface of the earth, but seemingly above the past limitations of mapping practices themselves.

However, this visage of reality can be deconstructed. Whilst the distortion created by traditional cartographic projections – of a 3D globe onto a 2D map – is superseded, GIS also suffers from the problem of projection, albeit in an opposite manner. In using satellite imagery, the software projects flat photographs onto a sphere, and as such employs its own form of projection, the General Perspective Projection. A level of selection and distortion is therefore mathematically inherent in the creation of even the most accurate map or globe. As the contemporary theorist Jason Farman has observed, while the projection that Google Earth uses is well suited for a spherical representation of Earth, any decision regarding which projection to use is “far more politically loaded than simply choosing the projection that best represents ‘reality.’” Regardless of accuracy in the ‘reflection’ of geographical fact, this emphasises that maps are, inevitably, constructed perspectives on the world, rather than ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’ technological representations. No map is a mirror.

The Illusion of Neutrality

The question becomes: what ideology could be hiding under the ‘neutral’ technology of Google Earth? The main problem with the illusion of reality is that it creates the expectation that GIS is somehow outside of cultural interpretation. While many maintain that the development of digital mapping constitutes a scientific pursuit capable of producing objective knowledge of the world, others have begun to regard GIS with suspicion, even alarm. Google Earth itself faces accusations of homogenising maps by imposing a singular geospatial version of the world, in what Brotton calls “an act of cyber-imperialism.” Never before in the history of maps has there been the possibility of a monopoly of geographical data falling into the hands of one company, and as their share of the global online search market approaches 70 per cent, Google is an increasingly key node of command over an emerging ‘information empire.’ The dream of territorial empire is dead, only to be replaced by imperialising global discourses, recast in terms of connectivity and interactivity. It is over this newly interconnected globe that Google now inconspicuously commands.

Within this new spatial empire, it is the company who ultimately determine what is shown. Just as Google’s search engine has been criticised due to the tendency to be misused as a ‘reality interface’ – the assumption being that everything not listed there is either unimportant or non-existent – so too does Google Earth create a monopoly over our perception of the world, selecting and omitting information dependent on its own agenda. In Google’s virtual world, what is not shown does not exist. These choices are not participatory and democratic, or made from an omniscient Apollonian position, but determined by a small group of technologists on the west coast of the US. Mapmaking thus remains, as it has for centuries, in the control of an elite minority who have the resources to universalise their very particular view of the world. It is our blind trust in the universal reality of Google’s virtual world that gives it such power.

One of the most troubling elements is the way in which Google’s business interests shape this selective representation. Operating under an ultimate aim of multinational profitability, Google provides its services for free, thereby giving it the monopoly necessary to generate massive advertising revenue. Under the pretence of technological objectivity, it is a corporate agenda that constructs a hierarchy of importance. In this worldview, coffee shop chains and clothing outlets are prioritised over natural features or agricultural land types, the streets of Western cities over third-world villages. Newly privatised mapping will follow its own logic of what should be put on and left off the map, with the underlying objective being profitability.

There are also broader concerns about the use of information. Most recently, following the Edward Snowden revelations in early 2014, it was controversially revealed that the NSA and the GSHQ intercepted Google Maps queries to locate users. While recent developments such as the rapidly-expanding Streetview appear to humanise Google’s globe further, populating the roads and pathways of the world with billions of blurred faces, their eerie anonymity only serves to remind us of the deeper political and legal issues at work, namely the right to privacy and the control of information. The seeming ‘neutrality’ of digital mapping thus belies a deeper network of political, legal, and corporate choices. Far from being a free and uncorrupted world, Google Earth, like all maps, is a selective perspective.

Somewhere between the visage of objectivity and the potential for limitless subjectivity, Google has constructed a virtual globe over which it implicitly rules. More than ever, any one of us can access and participate in mapmaking, creating increasingly personalised and useful spatial tools. Yet, behind the mask of ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ technology providing infinite possibilities for infinite worlds, Google may in fact provide only one.