|Modern cartography makes an art form of deletion. We can generate overwhelming amounts of spatial data for any given square meter on Earth
— but the vast majority is irrelevant to the average map user, who most likely just wants to get home, or perhaps know the closing times of nearby restaurants. To that end, most of Google Maps' usefulness lies in its ability surface relevant information. For example, Google mines your Gmail account for hotel reservation confirmation emails, and pins the addresses of upcoming reservations to your personal map.
Recently I've noticed the locations Google Maps highlights to me on any given map seem to be increasingly irrelevant. While I don't have any solid data points against this claim, my hypothesis is that Google is using Maps to drive advertising revenue rather than surface what I might find interesting in a city.
For example: I chose a random city in Europe I've never Googled before (Warsaw). Maps surfaced two shopping malls, two hotels, and a hostel: (image inline below. I'd be interested to know whether Google gives you the same or similar results).
Presumably there's more to Warsaw than malls and hotels. So this week, I explore how the history of mapping led to this point:
Maps have become increasingly objective
Medieval European maps had more in common with landscape illustrations than modern maps, and tended to represent the perspective of the viewer from a given point. The foundations of the grid-system emerged in Renaissance philosophy and British enclosure laws. Renaissance philosophy developed and applied principles of rationality and objectivity to the ordering of ideas and space, and in Britain, underpinned the philosophy of private property. Under enclosure laws, common areas
— previously owned by no-one
— were demarcated and enclosed for use by specific owners, for which maps were useful in keeping track of who owned what. Decartes invented the Cartesian coordinate system
— a method for plotting points in two-dimensional space
— around the same time, which provided the basis for objective spatial representations of private boundaries.
Today, we use three-dimensional coordinate projection systems that account for the world's roundness. A common way to understand why projections are necessary is to imagine the Earth as an orange. If you want to show any part of the orange in two-dimensions, you need to peel the orange and lay the peel down flat. This creates some gaps between the peel. Some map projections leave these gaps (e.g. the image below) while others stretch the map to fill the gaps over a rectangular surface. Google Maps, for example, uses the Web Mercator projection, which stretches the map near the poles, so Antarctica and Greenland look much larger than they actually are, and Africa looks much smaller. (Here's a detailed comparison of various projection types)
Modern maps go far beyond representing space: they represent processes and systems in real-time. Traffic information of Google Maps, for example. And this site — worth a click, it's really quite beautiful
— provides a three-dimensional rendering of wind, ocean currents, likelihood of being able to see the aurora, among other tings, for every point on the globe. (Click 'earth' at the link to toggle the various map views)
Maps imbue their creators with economic and political power
Most economic activity is rooted in an understanding of, or ownership over, physical locations. It follows that those who control effective and widely-used representations of space can alter how and where money is made. Cartographers' generate new economic opportunities simply by providing improved information: the Cartesian coordinate system allowed land to be sold more precisely, and accurate maps fetched very high prices. Introducing three-dimensionality allowed even more granular sub-division: air-space rights, surface rights, and mineral rights could be mapped, carved out and sold. Introducing real-time elements to maps created even more opportunities: for example, hedge-funds who inform their trading positions by employing meteorologists to build spatial models that predict weather effects on commodity patterns, or the fees Google can charge Uber for use of its Maps API.
Maps has always supported Google's search function. But the Warsaw example shows Google, having mastered the representation of space, are now altering their representations in pursuit of profit.
Ultra-personalised maps create, quite literally, different world views
And so we return to a world where maps represent the perspective of the viewer: algorithms superimpose locations of interest tuned to the personal needs and wants of the viewer on top of objective, rational projections of space. Or at least, locations Google supposes we're interested in. Google already bends its maps to suit geopolitical peculiarities, making determinations
— or not, as the case may be
— on the borders of Israel and Palestine, on exactly where China ends and the South China begins.
Cartographers have always held the power of insertion and deletion. But never before could they exercise these on a viewer-by-viewer basis, or create, by way of algorithm, an advertorial topography optimised for financial return. Will these revenues provide for investment in further mapping innovations? Or create a new gatekeeper to our experience of space?
A final thought: in this particular political moment there's a growing recognition that a characteristic of successful democracies is citizens sharing a common base of information. How will personalised maps change our experience of the world relative to those around us?