Article of the Day, Politics

The history of maps offers an insightful view to how the West’s inhospitable behaviour shaped life’s latest creation: the internet. Going over it extensively would take more than one post and definitely a lot of passion on the subject to type in one sit. Maybe in my senile days I’ll talk relentlessly about it, and hopefully my audience will bare with me, even if it’s mainly the 1 pig, 2 dogs, 4 cats, 8 donkeys, 2 chickens and 6 cows making me company.

Certainly, cartographic maps were not originally made to show peasants the beauty of the planet they happened to be born in. Cartographic maps were (and continue to be) a tool of power.

Back in the day of blue blood elitists, cartographic geographers (not their actual title at the time) were subjects in the royal house and as such, had to produce maps as commanded. During the middle ages, maps were less concerned about scale and more preoccupied with the unknown. As a matter of fact, sea monsters and mythical creatures were drawn like warnings of what could be ‘out’ there. This fear was also funded on the belief that the earth was flat, so venturing too far meant falling in a void of redemption–if not the confines of hell. Maps were also more likely to show illustrations of biblical locations.


c 1460 Psalter Map of the medieval world

Once the fear to imaginary creatures and free falling became less asphyxiating than the dread of a feudal existence in an overcrowded continent, imperialism saved the day. Idiots like Christopher Columbus didn’t mind getting eaten alive by mermaids, deep inside all he wanted was to get out of the pestilent kingdom he was a part of and get rich fast (Wouldn’t this be a fascinating story?). Exploring the oceans in the search of resources required more precise maps in order to allow rulers know what was actually out there, while also providing a visual reference for navigation.


c.1490 Christopher Colombus map

Had Columbus’ life ended feeding algae and Nemo’s ancestry before reporting back to his queen, chances are another idiot’s name would be taking his place. Or, in a more positive light, ‘indians’ would had never been ‘discovered’ and white guilt would be more honest because it wouldn’t be a thing.

Then what happened? A lot happened. But to make the story short let me just move on to the part where google acquired Keyhole, a company that specialized in geographical information system (GIS) applications that could be run from a desktop computer (aka Earthviewer). However, months later [in June 2005] Google had already launched Google Earth. What is more, Google had also started investing in commercial and aerial imagery from companies like DigitalGlobe. And yet, Google Maps was launched in February 2005. Ever since, both apps continue to evolve as geographical data becomes more available.

There is also something called ‘ray tracing’, which provides a more human like experience (since it uses geometry to mimic the human eye’s peripheral vision). As Ed Parson, geospatial technologist at Google in London, claimed back in 2008:

“That’s not to say the principals of design are not important in the creation of “maps” for screen display, indeed one could argue for the need of a “new” cartography which adopts rather than ignores the capabilities of screen based maps to portray information dynamically.”

In other words, resolution is key in today’s cartography to attain a ‘real virtuality’. Anyone with a computer or mobile device and access to the internet can navigate through virtual chambers of millions of pixels that give the impression of a street view. Due to legal and military constrains, Google continues to rely on terrestrial and aerial imagery to fulfill the real time expectations on the street view option. Although satellites can produce imagery at 10 cm resolution, allowing to identify an person’s face, their use is reserved for billionaires and government agencies.

Geospatial data is not as restricted. We are at the point of tracking our everyday moves, information that is processed, mapped, stored, and partially sold so we can get more personalized ads in our navigation through the web. It’s all pretty cool insight about our existence, and it is also disturbing to see how self-absorbed the human world has turned. We spy on each other for power / monetary accumulation, and we so naively accept any terms and conditions a website pops up on us without reading past the first paragraph (if even). Isn’t it fascinating?