Monday, February 18, 2013

The Visual Politics Of Cartography

Source: Google
It makes sense that the skills of graphicacy emerged in the 1960s from the study of geography. Maps by definition require a close inspection of visual cues. As Rob Edsall, Associate Professor at Carthage College, notes, maps are rarely recognized for the long series of choices made by their creator. In these choices, maps can reinforce conventional cultural attitudes or even create new power relationships.

Source: Neil Freeman, Fake Is The New Real
New York City artist and urban planner Neil Freeman explores the impact of these cartographic politics in his masterfully reimagined map of the United States Electoral College. In order to address the electoral imbalance between California and North Dakota, Freeman redraws the country into 50 new states with nearly identical populations of 6,175,000. This recasting of America's internal boundaries maintains the Constitutional precedent of the Electoral College but also ensures that popular votes will forever match electoral sums. It also ends the over-representation of some geographic centers. While Freeman's intent is artistic, not political, his redesign would hold fascinating implications for regional identity. The names he bestows on the new states, from Big Thicket to Atchafalaya, also resurrect a lively linguistic record of mountains, rivers, and ecological regions. Freeman's whole site at Fake Is The New Real is fascinating in its artistry.

Source: Rob Oakes
This notion of names as power, of borders as identity, finds its echo in the rumored Renaissance maps that inked the “Here Be Dragons” insignia to denote "unexplored territory." Professor Edsall highlights the disparity between areas of future exploration and other areas of intentional neglect. Many overlooked spaces are deliberately left unmapped, because they for some reason do not merit enough meaning or effort. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, for example, many poor neighborhoods that did not exist on official maps were delayed in receiving aid.

Emily Badger tackles a similar problem in the digital age with her detailed piece in The Atlantic Cities, called "How The Internet Reinforces Inequality In The Real World." Our colleague Gina Sipley (@GSipley) tipped us off to this important article about online cartographic hegemony. Badger points to Wikipedia entries, geotagged tweets, and FourSquare check-ins as the new "power brokers" of locative importance. "Maps have always had a way of bluntly illustrating power," she writes. "Simply appearing on one can be enough to make a place or community matter. Meanwhile, absence from 'the map' conveys something quite the opposite."

Source: Maki Icons
One way to level the terrain is to put the map-making power in the hands of global citizens. Google Map Maker seeks to do just this, by enhancing its open-source maps through the knowledge of locals. Much has been publicized about North Korea's recent addition to the catalog of Google Maps. In the same manner, leaders in the Nigerian capital of Abuja recognized the legitimacy that accurate maps bestow from the international community. They recently organized a crowdsourcing initiative to chart the details of their city using Google Map Maker, in the hopes of "authenticating" their neighborhoods to lure visitors and investors.

Source: Maki Icons
Other tools to standardize the representation of geographic data include Maki Icons. This project from MapBox offers "pixel-perfect icons for web cartography." Fully scale-able, these icons suggest a shared language for giving voice to all spaces in the physical and digital world.


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