in Opinion | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

Down to Earth

Google’s recent foray into satellite maps highlights the subjectivity of cartography

in Opinion | 14 NOV 05

I once met a Belgian nun with a singularly melancholic hobby. Every evening between supper and prayers she would retreat to the convent’s obsolete computer and start up an old piece of navigational software that depicted all the roads of the continent. She told me how, over the years, she had mapped out hundreds of routes, beginning at her cell in Bruges and ending in Paris, Rome, Moscow and beyond. Of course, she confessed, these journeys would never be taken. She just liked to imagine them.

I thought of her earlier this year when the internet company Google announced the launch of a new service, called Google Maps. This programme allows the user to conjure up charts and detailed satellite images of almost anywhere within the USA. The wonderment caused by these searchable snapshots from space was only increased by the subsequent summer launch of Google Earth. Now you can swoop down to any location on the globe with exhilarating ease, the satellite views being of such remarkable clarity that after a precipitous plunge from outer space I ended up suspended 100 feet above the roof of my own apartment, on which three yellow chairs were clearly visible.

Within days of the programme launch a welcoming committee of hackers had got hold of the source programming and created a host of counter-official maps of the urban landscape. In the illegal but useful spirit of hacking these visual mash-ups combined Google’s high-definition imaging software with websites that showed apartments for rent, local crime statistics or your nearest pizza restaurant. Rather than prosecuting the hackers, Google sensibly decided to make public the programme code, allowing anyone to help create a fully annotated globe – thus making psycho-cartographers of us all. As well as the vast number of prosaic additions, such as webcams and places of historic interest, Palo Alto could now be shown being attacked by ATATs from the Star Wars films, while others chose to personalize the globe even further, providing links to guided audio and visual tours of their home towns. Some enthusiasts even began to carry around Global Positioning Systems with which to display their real-time location on the world map.
Such a vast and democratic project would seem to signal the last, and grandest, hurrah of the human cartographic impulse. For as the amount of information added to the map grows, and if, or rather when, Google Earth decides to add real-time rather than static satellite imagery to the process, a virtual mirror world will be created, containing vast swaths of information over which we can float like gods.

Yet is it possible for a map, no matter how detailed, to deliver the divine truth? In his 1941 essay ‘Magical Geography’ the geographer Hans Speier warned of the inherent subjectivity of all maps: ‘They may make certain traits and properties of the world they depict more intelligible – or may distort or deny them. Instead of unknown relationships of facts they may reveal policies or illustrate doctrines. They may give information, but they may also plead. Maps can be symbols of conquest or tokens of revenge, instruments for airing grievances or expressions of pride.’ In 1947 S.W. Boggs supplemented this argument by coining the phrase ‘cartohypnosis’ to describe the inherent, uncritical faith most people had in anything presented as a map.

Of course, Speier and Boggs were confronting the totalitarian regimes of their time, which relentlessly bent maps to conform to their geopolitical wishes. While Google Earth may not yet lie for political ends (although Microsoft’s MSN Virtual Earth, a rival programme, does depict Apple’s headquarters as having been razed to the ground), it certainly hypnotizes and distorts perception purely through the million and one truths it plays host to. When one switches on the many different layers of the Google Earth – revealing a multitude of official and unofficial tags – the globe is erased beneath a graffiti-like swath of facts. As Boggs stated, ‘any map that shows too much information is of little use.’

Traditionally maps have been as much about displaying ignorance as knowledge. Antique maps left coastlines unfinished, and monsters – the bugbears of the unknown – lurked beneath the waves. In the Victorian era Edward Quin’s An Atlas of Universal History (1830) depicted the known world during biblical, Roman and medieval times as being circumscribed by dark encroaching clouds of benightedness. Yet the infinitesimally detailed Google Earth is, by its very success, beginning to share the characteristics of a map first dreamed of by Lewis Carroll in his story Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), in which a map with a scale of one mile to one mile is produced but can never be fully unravelled since it would block out the sun. In consequence of this, people are forced to use the real world as its own map, which proves to do ‘nearly as well’. Similarly as Google Earth continues on its inevitable yet impossible progress towards comprehensiveness, it will be interesting to see whether we can stand the cacophony of the real world being reflected back in the increasingly dissonant echo of this other.