Maps vs. Reality

The Atlantic:

What can we do to become more aware of the ignored, the invisible, the unmapped?

Maps have always had a way of bluntly illustrating power. Simply appearing on one can be enough to make a place or community matter. Meanwhile, absence from “the map” conveys something quite the opposite. Recall 19th century colonial surveys of Africa with the continent’s vast interior labeled as “unknown.” That one word on unmapped territory was simply another way of saying – in the eyes of the mapmaker – that the region was of little consequence. Whoever lived there didn’t matter.

This old idea of paper maps as power brokers offers a good analogy for how we might think today about the increasingly complex maps of digital information on the physical world that exist in the “geoweb.” This is where Wikipedia pages and online restaurant reviews and geocoded tweets live, all theoretically floating atop the actual cities and neighborhoods they describe.

“In many ways, it’s not even an analogy,” says Mark Graham, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. “We actually are talking about maps of some sort, in a way. Just because they’re maybe more ephemeral, or maybe more invisibly layered over our cities, it doesn’t mean they’re any less important or any less real.”

On these maps of digital information, a familiar trend is emerging. Some places are covered much more densely with information than others (Manhattan compared to upstate New York, Europe compared to Africa). But that information density bears no direct relationship to the density of human populations. And the gap between these two metrics provides a new way of looking at old questions of inequality.

Every technological innovation today around a new smart-phone app or web platform improving quality of life in citiescomes with a caveat. What about the people who can’t access those tools? What about the people on the other side of the digital divide who lack access to home computers, Internet connections, unlimited data plans? These are the people who go “unmapped” in the geoweb.

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  • Rick

    “Recall 19th century colonial surveys of Africa with the continent’s vast interior labeled as “unknown.” That one word on unmapped territory was simply another way of saying – in the eyes of the mapmaker – that the region was of little consequence. Whoever lived there didn’t matter.”

    I may be wrong, but I think that is jumping to conclusions. It would appears that those interior areas were actually “unknown”. As the link in the story says:
    “This map is a composite rendering of maps of Africa that were drawn by European cartographers between the 15th and 19th centuries. During that period, the real geography of the interior of the continent was largely unknown. The map captures some of the excitement and unintentional whimsy of early representations of the ‘mysterious’ continent. The coastline, the first area explored, is relatively accurate, but the inland sources of the rivers remain somewhat fanciful.”

  • Rick

    Oops, meant to say: It would appear that….

  • Scott Gay

    Maps such as the Gall-Peters projection were made just to overcome cylindral equal area distortions. But those distortions are firmly planted in Northern Hemispheric minds, because their maps were tilted to give that hemisphere a larger appearance. This has had empiriical ramifications.
    As for not being on the map- I think that has huge implication in the question of why the incarnation occurred in the near East 2000+ years ago.