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we should be able to approach some maps as a way to recognize what we already know,
and sometimes that means redrawing borders and boundaries with our bodies instead of corporate tools.
February 28, 2013
Map's eye view
Google Maps and the History of Itinerant Bodies and Borders

by Alyssa McLeod

How many maps, in the descriptive or geographical sense, might be needed to deal exhaustively with a given space, to code and decode all its meanings and contents? - Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

On the back of a cartoon coaster / In the blue TV screen light / I drew a map of Canada Oh Canada / With your face sketched on it twice. - Joni Mitchell,Case of You

On January 24, 2013, Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield tweeted an abstract-looking photograph of the Australian outback from the International Space Station, currently in orbit around the earth:

Pollock from space

Chris Hadfield's tweet of Jackson Pollack's 'Australia'

Retweeted nearly two thousand times, this image provoked comments comparing Hadfield to a “magician conjuring up wonders,” cheeky requests to alter the weather patterns in Australia, and even literalistic complaints that the picture has been “enhanced considerably” from the region’s satellite image in Google Maps (-24.482149,138.658447).

Whether it is in the form of satellite images, aerial photographs, or simple hand-drawn graphs, the act of mapping the globe plays a central role in our understanding of what it means to be human. Synthesizing art and science, Hadfield has compared the landscapes in the photographs he has taken from his godlike perspective in space to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, the works of Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, a human bellybutton, and even the "ghost of a checkerboard through the snow." These apparently objective views of the earth from space are, in fact, extensions of human culture, expressionist works of art projected into the galaxy much like the songs and stories contained in the Golden Record launched with the Voyager Interstellar Spacecraft in 1977.

In a recent essay, Johanna Drucker points to Google Maps and its related satellite images of the earth’s surface as the most “pernicious” of influences in current mapping trends (“Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship” 91). Digital photography reifies what it portrays to what it is, she explains: “Savvy as we are, the concessions made in the name of efficacy may turn out to have too heavy a price if we cannot imagine alternative spatial models for experienced and situated approaches” (91). Several decades ago, Michel de Certeau attributed this lack of subjective representation in current mapping practice to the “birth of modern scientific discourse” in the Enlightenment, as compared to the more symbolic representation of space common in late Roman and medieval maps (Practice of Everyday Life 120). With less designated space for cultural bias, post-Enlightenment maps threaten to trick their viewers into thinking they contain no cultural bias: this is the way the world is, our typical world maps seem to argue, while in fact they disguise regionalisms and deep-seated cultural arguments. Placing the South Pole at the top of the world, Stuart MacArthur’s 1979 “upside-down” Universal Corrective Map of the World underlined these biases.

But from Google Street View to the narrated “tours” of everything from the Grand Canyon to famous surf destinations on Google Earth, online mapping practices in the twenty-first century have seemed to have returned to an earlier, medieval understanding of spatial representation, a model of spatiality that embraces human movement as an organizational tool. These open-source, corporate-created mapping tools systematize the human experience of space: if I take a virtual stroll down the Champs-Élysées through Google Street View, it will look very much like every other Google user’s experience of the same avenue. Yet right now these mapping tools in turn are subverted by the actual movement of individuals: those who “prank” Street View with staged scenes of improbable existence, set up aerial art that can be viewed by satellite (although the geoglyph tradition predates our ability to actually see these impressive pieces from the air), and daily walk the streets that for online viewers are frozen in time. In short, these digital maps embrace what was from the Roman Empire to well into the Middle Ages the most common form of navigational aide: the itinerary.

ii. a brief history of itineraries

An itinerary is, quite literally, a set of directions that guide the reader from one place to another. De Certeau cites C. Linde’s and W. Labov’s 1975 study of New Yorkers’ descriptions of their apartments: most residents (ninety-seven percent) gave their listeners an oral “tour” of their apartment, basing their report on the actions of a visitor - “You come in throw a low door,” “You turn right and come into the living room,” etc. (119). The others (three percent) described their apartments from a fictional bird’s-eye-view, similar to our understanding of what a map is today - “The girls’ room is next to the kitchen” (119). In itineraries, or tours, action and movement condition our understanding of space; in maps, at least post-Enlightenment ones, space is not described in relation to the body but in relation to other spaces. On a map, Australia is nearly three thousand kilometres from Indonesia, for example, whereas an itinerary may describe it as so many days of sailing.

Roman soldiers and early medieval travellers shared New Yorkers’ proclivity for itineraries. From the Antonine Itinerary, a third-century textual register of Roman settlements along the roads of the Roman Empire, to the Peutinger Table, a thirteenth-century copy of a fifth-century graphical itinerary of the roads leading from Europe to the Middle East, most forms of navigational aide consisted of a list of destinations, with the distance between each stop marked by the amount of time it would take to get there by foot. Even some medieval mappae mundi, highly symbolic representations of the globe that had little to do with navigation or geographic accuracy (by today’s standards), borrowed place names and other information from popular textual itineraries. Navigation and graphical representation of space were not tied so closely together as they are now, although sailors would rely on rough sketches of coastal lines with compass markings for navigation at sea, called portolan charts.

One of the most striking examples of graphical itineraries is Matthew Paris’s thirteenth-century itinerary from London to Apulia, a step-by-step set of pictorial instructions for someone travelling from London Bridge on the Thames River across the sea to France and then Italy.

medieval itinerary

Paris, a Benedictine monk writing from St. Albans Abbey, separates each stage of the journey by a red line indicating the length of time it takes to get there: une journée (a day). Viewers of this itinerary must scan their eyes up and down the page, mimicking the movement of Paris’s traveller. In 2008, Hugh Yeman attempted to “translate” Paris’s itinerary into Google Maps, depicting the same journey as a series of placemarks on the earth:

medieval itinerary

Pilgrimage Route from London to Otranto

Needless to say, the resulting map lacks the pedestrian feel of Paris’s itinerary, although of course it is much closer to our current understanding of spatiality. (Yeman did encounter some issues while attempting to geolocate some of the placemarks; Paris would have based much of the route on hearsay.)

iii. immobile maps

In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, maps gradually became disconnected from the sense of movement that characterizes itineraries. While earlier maps would feature blurred coastlines and drawings of ships to indicate exploration, everything was eventually recorded, graphed, and even given a numerical value in the form of longitudes and latitudes. Much of this shift in mapping practice stemmed from the need for accurate coastal charts for naval exploration, and mapmakers in the fifteenth century began to look back to Ptolemy’s coordinate system outlined in his Geographia in the second century.

orbis terrarum nova

Between itinerary and map: The ghostly coastline of a partially explored New Zealand and a ship to indicate further exploration, from Orbis terrarum nova et accuratissima tabula by Nicolao Visscher (Amsterdam, 1658)

But this (decidedly Euro-centric) cartographic embrace of the relationship between charted space and human movement seems to have ended with the age of exploration, perhaps because cartographers’ sense of their own cultural bias diminished with their increased familiarity with the details of the globe. Despite shifting borders and country names (and a few “ghost” islands mis-charted in the nineteenth century), the map of the world as we know it has remained detached from the human bodily experience of space, or so it seems. Viewers of maps remain very much on the outside of the process of exploration, disconnected from the sense of walking along lakeshores, sailing up coastlines, or experiencing anything at an on-ground level. It is as if viewers of maps are spectators from space, disconnected from a sense of their own locatedness within the map they are viewing.

Recent developments in online mapping tools have started to challenge this lack of embodiment while still embracing the technique of post-Enlightenment mapping practice. Yet, as Drucker contends, satellite images of the earth from space could seem to be the earth rather than simply represent it. Yet the user interfaces of many of these (admittedly corporate) tools provide a level of participatory involvement unprecedented by typical paper-on-ink maps. Visitors to Google Maps, Wikimapia, and OpenStreetMap can contribute their own interpretations of the world around them, building up layers of memories and itineraries that show maps of the world as products of our culture.

Google Earth has systematized this public involvement by allowing users to create their own narrated “tours” of the world, complete with voiceover, pop-up information boxes containing embedded images or videos, and placemarks. Even museums and other public institutions can upload their building plans to their digital satellite image on Google Earth and Google Maps, allowing online visitors to “walk” through their collections on the Google Art Project from gallery to gallery.

museum view

The “museum view” of the National Gallery in London on the Google Art Project, complete with the building’s floor plan

But many of Google Earth’s tours are sponsored or co-created by organizations such as National Geographic and even popular public figures such Paulo Coelho. The Google Earth tour gallery features a section titled “Heroes of Google Earth,” a suspiciously advertisement-like collection of videos that highlights public service groups who use Google Earth as a tool in their campaign work (the U.S. Forest Service, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, and the anti-deforestation activist Chief Almir of the Surui people of the Amazon, to name a few).The program may portray itineraries, but they are itineraries that have less to do with individual experience or the act of travel than with the company they represent; namely, Google.

Google Street View does more to capture a sense of movement. Cameras mounted on trucks, tricycles, and even snowmobiles have captured 360-degree shots of thousands of locations across the world, ranging from the streets of major cities in North America to the snowy plains of the South Pole. You can walk down Broadway Avenue in New York City or stroll by the Western Wall in Jerusalem by simply clicking and dragging the little orange figure into the street, all through the peculiar prosthesis of your phone or computer screen.

Many find the public nature of this technology obtrusive; Google has its own corporate interests and has been known to delete or edit images from Street View. Even the act of blurring people’s faces and license plates decreases the sense of verisimilitude that comes with Street View, and at least one individual has sued Google for publicizing an embarrassing act. Villagers of the village of Broughton in the UK went so far as to form a human wall in 2009 to prevent Google from taking pictures of their homes, although evidently they relented, since Broughton appears in Google Street View today.

But people have started to reclaim the space of their neighbourhoods by staging vignettes for Google’s cameras, casting themselves into virtual immortality:

viking vignette

Residents of 8 Sampsonia Way, Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania 15212 engage in a Viking swordfight

Interestingly, if you look up this image directly, Google has blurred the two men:

vikings erased

And here are the Googlers themselves at Google headquarters in Pittsburgh:

google gone

These staged scenes point to Google Street View’s failure to represent human experience. These figures, frozen in time and space and performing unusual activities alongside the everyday, remind of us the constructedness of the street view, a kind of twenty-first-century equivalent to the ships, monsters, and blurred borders of early world maps.

iv. mapping the crowd

In late January of this year, Google Maps posted a rough outline of the major roads and cities of North Korea, information that had been collected from hundreds of “citizen cartographers” over the course of several years using the open source Google Map Maker to chart what they know of the secluded country. Google has relied on citizen contributions for maps before, particularly in poorer countries where the government has not put much effort into mapping their terrain, such as Afghanistan. Compared to the map of South Korea, the new map of North Korea is ghostly, featuring only a few roads and place names and several light brown areas that represent alleged North Korean prison camps:

google gone

Controversially, a few weeks before the maps of North Korea were released, Google chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea on what he called a “private humanitarian mission” to encourage internet access among its citizens. Google’s potential corporate stake in North Korea was obviously a factor in Schmidt’s visit as well. Only a few of North Korea’s citizens can actually access the internet, Schmidt reported upon his return, and the rest of the country operates on a highly supervised Intranet. Could mapping North Korea against its will be serving Google’s corporate interests as well, and does aligning the cartography of a totalitarian nation with Western mapping practices actually do anything for democracy, or for North Korean citizens? Indeed, the comparatively sparse view of North Korea in Google Maps serves to remind us of our ignorance instead of our knowledge. Within a few days of the unveiling of these maps, Google posted a blog entry detailing the economic benefits of geoservices.

As with Google Street View, users have already started to subvert the medium by writing sarcastic “ reviews” of each gulag. “I booked through Expedia and we got a really good deal. Where should I start?,” writes one reviewer of Yodok Gulag, located in the South Hamgyong province, “The gourmet food was exceptional, with Cheff [sic] Ramsey on board you can't go wrong. The Shiatsu massages were reviving. Jacuzzi with a cigar and a glass of Chardonnay on a top of the mountain with a spectacular views, what else could a soul on this planet ask for???” “Best. Gulag. Ever. And the setting of that next Wayans Bros. movie. (((((SPOILER ALERT))))) - Great Leader is Great!,” comments another. Like medieval itineraries, these reviews shift the emphasis from the actual map of North Korea to the experience of the people who live there. Online readers see the pain and subjugation hidden behind those benign brown patches on the map. In this case, the lack of embodiment on the map points to the proliferation of real bodies in these purported death camps, bodies that have no power to manipulate their external environment in the way users can manipulate a browser to “explore” the world.

v. contemporary itineraries

In The Craft of Thought, a study of rhetoric and memory in medieval culture, Mary Carruthers argues that medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land were less concerned with the authenticity of the objects and buildings they beheld than with the “memory-work” that made their pilgrimage meaningful (42). For these travellers, pilgrimage was not about seeing something new, but rather about recollecting routes that they had already learned from the Bible; narrative is a “way” among “places” (43).

Users of the aforementioned online mapping tools take a similar approach to maps. Cartographic lines, national borders, and place names ought to reflect the identities of the people who live there; we should be able to approach some maps as a way to recognize what we already know. And sometimes that means redrawing borders and boundaries with our bodies instead of corporate tools. In Canada, the Idle No More movement (a First Nations grassroots movement designed to raise public awareness of the Canadian government’s mishandling of aboriginal issues) is reshaping borders by bodily blocking commuter highways, train routes, and holding round dances in public shopping malls. Echoing the actions of those who joined Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963 and Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, protesters are disrupting daily itineraries to outline another, older underlying cartography that has shaped the country.

The popularity of Commander Chris Hadfield on Twitter comes from his ability to see these older, more personal cartographies on the surface of the world, in spite of, or perhaps because of his godlike aerial perspective. Even from space, earth is profoundly human.