Gaps in the Map: Why We’re Mapping Everything, and Why Not Everything Can, or Should, be Mapped

I set out this summer to write a column for Places on mapping, informed by all the background work I did to develop my new “Maps as Media” grad studio. Today, my editors mercifully informed me that what I’ve written is not an article, but a pedagogical prospectus. Doh! I sort-of suspected that. Re-reading the piece again, after about a month’s distance, it’s now painfully clear: this thing is of a generic species for which there is no market. Another annoying quirk: I use the Royal We waaaaay too presumptuously, way too often.

Maybe I can salvage some of this crap for a more focused piece in the near or distant future? For now, however, I celebrate my glorious failure by posting it here, in the hope that some of it might be of use to some hypothetical reader — and with the expectation that the act of posting will be at least mildly cathartic for me.

Gaps in the Map: The Topologies of Cartography

Representing the uncharted or classified: hic sunt dracones, via Carta Marina; Google blur, via The Atlantic 

Are you excited by the idea of using bits to move atoms? Are you excited to directly impact logistics and transportation in hundreds of cities? Are you excited to help move people and things more efficiently around the world? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are probably a great fit for Uber!

Back in July, Uber was seeking a GIS Engineer to contribute to the development of “robust mapping and logistics infrastructure” that could manage the “routing, navigation, dynamic pricing, supply positioning, local search, and real-time traffic patterns” of its international fleets of vehicles, drivers, and passengers. Meanwhile, Sanborn, the company born in the 1860s to create fire insurance maps, had openings for an aerial mapping pilot and a Natural Resources GIS Analyst Programmer; and ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) listed 256 jobs on its website – everything from Apps Product Engineers to Multimedia Specialists to a Technical Advisor for the oil and gas industries.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Aerial Photography, via KLM
Aerial Photography, via KLM

GIS, or geographic information systems, specialists have reason to be excited, whether their skills are put to use increasing the world’s efficiency at Uber or not. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment opportunities for geoscientists are expected to grow 16% between 2012 and 2022; for surveying and mapping technicians, 14%; for cartographers and protogrammetrists (those who make maps from aerial and satellite imagery), 20%; and for geographers, an impressive 29%, growth driven primarily by the demand for geographic data and maps. Today’s and tomorrow’s map-makers and GIS analysts will, enthusiasts proclaim, help our scientists better understand the dynamics of climate change; help our law enforcement officials predict and prevent urban crime; help our policymakers develop global policies that respond to patterns of refugee migration; help to dispatch Uber drivers to waiting passengers; and help us find the best dry cleaners and donuts in town. Soon, if Silicon Valley has its way, we’ll have a map app for every conceivable localizable good and service or geographic flow. Our landscapes, rationalized via a universal calculus and rendered into normalized indexical domains, offer themselves up to be searched, tracked, coded, zoned, exploited.

The map, it seems, travels widely. It pops up regularly, as both material artifact and metaphor, in everyday conversations. Mapping presents itself as a valuable tool or method for everyone from journalists and epidemiologists to police departments and digital marketers. The widespread availability of constantly-updated GIS data, and the prevalence of constantly-refreshing screens, means that more maps are produced, and more of them enter our lives, every day. And those maps-on-small-screens are doubly pervasive: both actively and passively, overtly and covertly present and active. We actively seek out the map, typically by tapping the Google Maps icon on our phones, to orient ourselves and find our way.[1] Yet those maps are also covertly foundational, always “on,” even if only in the background, on our location-aware devices. The passive and continual monitoring of our whereabouts means that we’re always lounging, driving, or shopping (or engaging in less consumption-oriented, or perhaps even nefarious, activities) on somebody’s map – somebody who’s eager to route an Uber our way, or feed us advertisements for restaurants or movies that might be of interest along the next block, or track our movement across borders and point surveillance apparatae in our direction.

Anthropologist Clyde Kluchhohn (1949), media sage Marshall McLuhan (1967), and his promoter, adman Howard Luck Gossage, have all been credited with acknowledging that whoever discovered water probably wasn’t a fish. The implication, of course, is that the fish isn’t aware of its aquatic environment, its medium, because it’s immersed in it. It knows nothing else; or, if it does, it’s probably not long for this terrestrial world. We, however, live both inside and outside the proverbial and conceptual fishbowl: we live on the surface of the earth, but we’ve developed means of representing that territory to ourselves – and even seeing precisely where we lie within that territory: “You are here.” Maps are, of course, one such representational, orientational, and navigational tool. At the same time, the ubiquity of maps – their seemingly obligatory integration into our apps, websites, new forms of “data journalism,” and performance dashboards – has, to some degree, naturalized them, made them banal. We’re often unconscious of their existence both because we’ve dissolved them into our everyday landscape, and because they’ve rendered themselves imperceptible, passively operational, within that landscape. They’ve become, in a sense, our aquatic medium.

Maps in Data Journalism
Maps in Data Journalism

All the more reason why maps are not simply a concern for geographers and cartographers and GIS engineers; or for the programmers and designers who’ve found themselves working in the robust GIS industry; or for the countless artists who’ve taken up maps as their subject. Maps are a foundational part of the wired world’s social, cultural, and political terrain; and they’re of tremendous political-economic importance to the non-wired portions of the world that cartographers often depict (often for “development” purposes). Maps always have been, but are now more than ever, media.

Regarding maps as media encourages us to recognize their prevalence and value as a fundamental cultural form – but it also prompts us to supplement geography’s methodologies and critical frameworks with those from media studies. We’re invited to consider maps’ material forms, graphic language, and the protocols that direct their operation. We’re invited to consider the processes by which they’re created, circulated, and used – and by whom. We’re invited to examine the massive complex of industries now dedicated to their creation. We’re invited to consider the deep history of techniques, technologies, and sensibilities that informed the development of cartography – and to wonder how those fundamentals might still be present, in some form or another, in our maps today. We’re also invited to think about the “discourse network” of cartography itself, as it’s practiced in geography departments and labs and the satellite-inhabited exosphere, and to consider the politics underlying the practical and critical work through which map-making gets done.

The Mapping Mindset

Bentham's Panopticon
Bentham’s Panopticon

Just has the aquatic environment has shaped the fish’s modes of cognition, our cartographic environments have their own intellectual implications (more philosophically-oriented than the fish’s, we hope). We might attribute today’s mapping mindset to the rise of GIS, GPS, mappable data sets, Google Maps, and smartphones – but the intellectual ground was prepared, the field cleared, the foundation laid long ago to support today’s cartographic compulsion. The humanities and social sciences, in one of their many purported theoretical revolutions, have, over the past several decades, made a “spatial turn” – a redirection of attention toward space, rather than time, as a key critical and analytical framework (among our many other “turns” have been the cultural, the linguistic, the sensory, the material, the post-human…). Globalization in its countless manifestations, post-colonialism, accelerated urbanization and migration, the rise of mass media and particularly networked telecommunications, growing concerns over the environment and an expanding ecological consciousness, as well as myriad other political, economic, technological, and cultural forces, have all been credited with bringing space into relief.[2] The rise of spatial theory was both incited, and then chronicled and molded, by a rising crop of spatial theorists. Among them were emperors Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel de Certeau; deputies and protégés Marc Augé, Gaston Bachelard, Jean Baudrillard, Manuel Castells, Gilles Deleuze, David Harvey, Edward Soja, and Paul Virilio; with Doreen Massey, Gillian Rose, Saskia Sassen, and Iris Marion Young counted among the few female officers. As in earlier ages of exploration, this one was mapped out primarily by men.

In such company, it is obligatory to cite Foucault – so, voilà!: “The great obsession of the nineteenth century,” he argues, “was history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world.”

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at the moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.[3]

Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1665-8
Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1665-8
Nervous Net: Jay Forrester's World Dynamics, 1971
Nervous Net: Jay Forrester’s World Dynamics, 1971

But there’s a deep history to this new spatiality. The modern “epoch of space” – and the compulsion to diagram and map it – saw many foreshadowings in previous ages. Polymathic scholar Tom Conley tells of a “cartographic impulse” in 15th– and 16th-century France, driven by the discovery of the New World; a growing interest in mapmaking, he argues, paralleled the rise of a new sense of self and new forms of cartographic writing that, in both their content and form, explored spatial ideas.[4] The expansion of global seafaring likewise inspired the Dutch to take up mapmaking as both a vocation and a pastime, and to regard maps as both a source of geographic knowledge and a domestic decoration. As art historian Svetlana Alpers explains, 17th-century Dutch artists succumbed to the “mapping impulse,” too, emphasizing landscapes as subject matter and often depicting maps within their paintings, thereby transforming themselves into artist-cartographers (the same could be said of many contemporaneous Italian artists).[5]

Scholars of the late 18th century, preoccupied with “accuracy, numeracy, and measurement,” also committed themselves to “mapping ‘anything and everything’” – and, as Lauren Klein argues, to taxonomic representations of data and other early forms of data visualization.[6] By the following century, widespread “fetishiz[ation] of the map” had become part of a larger “fetishizing of vision,” as evidenced by the emergence of panoramas and photographs and plate-glass windows, and the fascination with collection and display.[7] The world itself became an exhibition.[8] Similar impulses, combined with a commitment to the late 19th-/ early 20th-century internationalist peace movement, fed Paul Otlet, Patrick Geddes, and Otto Neurath in their often collaborative experiments and grand proposals to collect, classify, diagram, and exhibit (in the form of “thinking machines” or “pictorial statistics,” or, as Lewis Mumford called it, “ideological cartography”) all the world’s knowledge.[9] With the Cold War, and its emerging communication and cognitive sciences and their new calculative and statistical techniques, those data maps increasingly took the form of circuits and nets. As Orit Halpern explains, “Cyberneticians and their affiliated disciplines became obsessed with data visualization” – particularly, visualizations of processes and patterned flows – as “the mechanism for consciousness.”[10]

Maps’ Topoi

That “network that connects points and intersects with its own skein,” an entangled map, would likely defy traditional cartographic representation and instead call for what Halpern calls a more “schizoid” diagram. Foucault’s network of vectors and folds is quite different from the map of the Low countries depicted in Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, or the birds’-eye city views of the 19th-century panorama, or a Google satellite map showing local bike routes. The vector-network, we might say, represents space as topology; the latter three maps, space as topography.

Topology is a branch of mathematics concerned with the spatial properties of an object that hold steady even if that object deforms, or stretches; in other words, topology is interested in abstract surfaces, vectors, trajectories, connections, rather than precise spatial locations.[11] Topological structures – “models, networks, clouds, fractals,… flows” and assemblages – are commonly used to describe myriad contemporary cultural forms, from technology to financial markets to geographies transformed by dynamic forces and mobility.[12] The archetypal subway map, which shows relations between lines and stations while “stretching the truth” in its representation of the above-ground geography, is a topological map – as are many indigenous maps. The recent flood of data visualizations is largely topological, too.

Marshall Islands Stick Charts
Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth's "Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences" from Diderot's Encyclopédie, 1780 (via Wikipedia)
Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth’s “Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences” from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1780 (via Wikipedia)

Topography, meanwhile, focuses on graphically representing, or describing, the three-dimensional surface of an area, typically highlighting its local features. The topographic map is one form of cartography; the planimetric map, by contrast, relays the horizontal position of features without also showing relief.

Our current capacious uses of the term “mapping” – we “map out” our workflows and corporate architectures, our weekly schedules and errand itineraries – embrace both topoi: both network diagrams without material reference to physical space, and representations of concrete morphologies; both non-cartographic data visualizations and geographic representations.[13] Particularly when we’re working with GIS, though, it’s important to recognize that those topoi are entwined. The topographical has an underlying topology: the structure of the databases underlying our maps – which configures the relationships between plotted points, lines, and areas – profoundly informs the shapes those maps take. And our representations of geo-locatable data lend themselves to topological network analysis and the modeling of different behaviors and scenarios.[14]

Maps as Media

Through their studies of communication, which involved the creation of new topological diagrams, the cyberneticians were key players in the birth of media studies (McLuhan took inspiration from their work). What constitutes a medium has been endlessly (and often abstrusely) theorized. For our purposes, however, we’ll say that maps are media because they’re material (even the digital is a form of immaterial materiality) technologies and cultural practices of communication and representation.[15] I’m not the first to make such a claim: some folks in the businesses of making and studying maps have argued that maps are media because they’re composed of systems of visual language, or they’re means of propaganda, tools for the “manipulation” of meaning and the exercise of power.[16] Christian Jacob, in his The Sovereign Map, presents maps as media by examining both how they function as a means of graphic communication or a system of signs; and how they serve as “tool[s] of power” that “impose a vision of the world” and embody particular values and ideologies.[17]

Yes, maps are rhetorical and political – and by looking at the “medial” properties of maps, we can better understand how they convey meaning, exert influence, and carry bias. Yet media and cultural studies have long recognized the limitations of reducing artifacts to codes or semiotic systems, or to tools for propaganda. Maps, like the landscapes they represent, aren’t simply “texts” to be “read.” What’s more, geographer John Pickles argues, we “need an understanding of mapping that does not reduce the work maps do to the repressive exercise of power.”[18] Maps are more then hegemonic forces. Recognizing maps as media potentially opens up a more expansive understanding of how they operate.

First, maps-as-media are material artifacts, or interfaces, that adhere to particular protocols of communication. Jacob traces the map’s lexical variations – including the French carte, meaning card; the Latin mappa, or tablecloth; the Greek pinax, meaning tablet or plate – and notes that, while there is perhaps no particular concrete manifestation that defines a map, this etymology serves to remind us that the map is given form, instantiated in some way – and, I would argue, the nature of that formalization, even if only fleeting or imaginary, matters. Second, maps-as-media, like all media, are produced by myriad entities – today, by an increasing variety of individuals and industries – for various reasons, under particular conditions, and subject to both cartographic conventions and variable aesthetic or editorial choices. Bill Rankin, through his Radical Cartography project, calls attention to those protocols and conventions by juxtaposing data sets, or rendering the same set of data in varying styles, thus “provok[ing] slippages, overlaps, and multiple kinds of diversity.”[19] “My maps are possible only because of the diversity of data and software,” he says, “but most of my work is about making that data and software do things that they were never meant to do.”[20]

Bill Rankin's Radical Cartography
Bill Rankin’s Radical Cartography

Third, maps-as-media are distributed among myriad “users” in particular ways; and they’re accessed, “processed” (do we still “read” maps?), and interpreted by those users in different ways. Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson, and Martin Dodge propose a variety of methods – genealogy, ethnography, interviews, participant observation, etc. – that would help geographers better understand how people use maps “within particular contexts and cultures as solutions to everyday tasks.”[21] As Matthew Wilson and Monica Stephens note, in advocating for “GIS as media,” the “distinctly interactive” nature of contemporary maps allows for new uses: readers can adjust their scale and scope, reconfigure their data, put those data into motion, and even crowd-source new data (including intelligence from underrepresented groups), thus generating a “plurality of expression(s) and multiple documentations of ‘truth.’”[22]

Whether we’re considering a 14th-century portolan chart or the modern-day Uber app, our maps-as-media arise, circulate, and get used within various “discourse networks” – webs of people, instruments, institutions, specialized knowledges, and power – that constitute their own topologies.[23] One such player in this network is, of course, Google, with its extraordinary cartographic empire that has acquired the authority to “define borders and boundaries” and has, “without having any legal, political and democratic mandate,” replaced national agencies and international organizations in becoming “the referential map of the world.”[24] OpenStreetMap and other open-source initiatives, with vastly different collective values and spatial politics, now present a viable alternative.[25] Meanwhile, satellites, which are critical tools in both the production and distribution of maps, are “indebted to…institutions committed to seeing the world in military or logistical terms.”[26] It is our “civic responsibility and political obligation,” Laura Kurgan says, to understand how satellite images are generated; “for every image, we should be able to inquire about its technology, its location data, its ownership, its legibility, and its source.”[27] Pickles goes even farther, arguing that we need to consider the politics of the God’s-eye view, of the cartographic gaze, and “read against the grain of representational epistemologies.”[28]

Map-making is also what German media theorists would call a “cultural technique” – a set of operational processes, including means of training the mind and body, the creation of tools and systems of education, etc., that give rise to a cultural practice like cartography.[29] The cultural techniques approach takes a deeply historical view: it acknowledges that people were “mapping” and making map-like things long before they recognized their work as cartography.[30] Taking the long view helps us understand how “mapping,” through all of its entwined protocols and apparatae, has enabled people to grapple with fundamental human concerns: distinctions between inside and outside, or between nature and culture, for instance. Maps’ modes of representation, Bernhard Siegert says, signal the dominance of particular “epistemic orders,” or ways of knowing – ways of grasping “territory” at various scales, ways of understanding “property,” ways of negotiating the relationships between land and sea, ways of conceptualizing borders and nations, and so forth.[31] Examining our data-driven maps of today through a lineage that extends back through the proto-cartographic, we might wonder about the fundamental epistemological and ontological questions raised by our heat maps and Yelp maps. How might the tides have turned in those “epistemic waters”?

Yet it’s not only about the pictures of the world that maps present. The very existence of mapping as a large-scale media-production industry, and the means by which those maps are produced, raises questions about the values embedded in the system. Who has historically owned the means of describing space, and what have been their interests? What kinds of data have merited representation, and how have those data been generated, and what are their “geographies of knowledge”? What do we make of our contemporary interactive maps’ post-Copernican, egocentric orientation, which places you – not the earth, not the sun, not Jerusalem or Mecca – at the center? What happens when we hold in our hands manipulable maps that render space as something seamlessly traversable, rational, and exploitable?

The Ebstorf mappamundi, ca. 1235
The Ebstorf mappamundi, ca. 1235
Dan Zomack, Lenoir City, via Hand Drawn Map Association
Dan Zomack, Lenoir City, via Hand Drawn Map Association

And what kinds of spatial “epistemic orders” are eclipsed by this new egocentric framing, or “self-centering,” and real-time navigational assistance? Henry Grabar suggests that, with all this automation, we run the risk of shrinking our capacity for “spatial thinking” – for self-orienting and -navigating, for developing our own “cognitive maps” to find ourselves in the world.[32] Kurgan also laments contemporary maps’ “comfortable sense of orientation, of there being a fixed point,” which “put[s] the project of orientation – visibility, location, use, action, and exploration – into question.” Maps “let us see too much,” she says, “and hence blind us to what we cannot see, imposing a quiet tyranny of orientation that erases the possibility of disoriented discovery” – and, at the same time, “blinds” us (sic) to those “invisible lines” of people, places, and networks that are rarely regarded as cartographically significant.[33] (The ableist construction also highlights the dangers of ocularcentrism)

Finally, as someone who has, for many years, studied mapping through the lens of media studies – and who has looked at media through the framework of various institutional politics – I’d also suggest that the critical study of cartography itself, as practiced in geography and related disciplines, also constitutes its own historical cultural technique, a mode of inquiry and practice that warrants reflection. The politics of that earlier “spatial turn” – with Foucault and the French admirals at the helm, and the women and Global South below-deck – have shaped the terrain within which we make, use, and study maps today.

Together, these variables constitute the topology of maps-as-media.

Cartography as Media-Making

From 2010 through 2013 my colleague Rory Solomon and I taught a graduate studio at The New School, where our students researched historical media infrastructures (loosely defined) – the rise and disappearance of movie theaters in Greenpoint, the geographies of carrier pigeon networks and independent bookstores and newspaper delivery, the production and distribution of activist zines, the strategic siting of carrier hotels and data centers, the northward spread of Edison’s electrification – and plotted those infrastructures on a map. We approached map-making as media design: the students used the map as a framework within which they could tell spatial stories and make cartographic arguments, which were illustrated with a variety of media: “rectified” historical maps, archival photos, field recordings, student-produced video, interview footage, and so on.

Rather than use Google Maps or Historypin or one of the myriad existing mapping platforms, though, we worked over the course of several years with programmers and designers in the Parsons School of Design to develop our own map – one based entirely on open-source technologies, including OpenLayers and OpenStreetMap. Why begin tabula rasa? Because while those existing platforms lent themselves readily to geo-locating data – and particularly well to pinning random bits of archival material (“Hey, look at this cool old stuff I found”!) – they weren’t so great at providing context, or explaining relevance or significance, or highlighting provenance and giving credit to the archivists and artists and scholars who generated that “pinned” material, or creating a framework that gathered up all those data points into a compelling cartographic argument. And, frankly, we preferred not to rely on corporate platforms built on questionable politics, and which had no obligation to preserve our data.

The mapping platform we made was more-than-a-little clunky, persistently buggy, not-so-pretty, and often a source of tremendous frustration. Plotting material required significantly more effort – and for that reason, more careful thought and parsimoniousness – than would’ve been required with a slick and seamless tool. Students had to model their own data, then manually link their individual data-points into networks of “related records,” which they then tied together via illustrated stories or interactive arguments. They had to do the hard work of building a topological foundation for their topography (and their maps were indeed topographic; they aimed to show the three dimensions of infrastructural activity – the aerial, the street-level, the subterranean – in a city distinguished by both its horizontal spread and its verticality).

Yet all that laborious manual control afforded many benefits. Students saw inside the proverbial black box; they watched software get made… and fail, and get (partially) fixed. Those small defeats and victories offered insight into how the system worked – and didn’t; the students ultimately learned a lot more from these error-pitted processes, uncomfortable though they were, than from their effortless interactions with Yelp or Google. The students made choices for themselves – about their maps’ scale of representation, or what base-map would serve as the substrate for all their plotted data – that probably would’ve been made for them by other platforms; and, consequently, they questioned and “denaturalized” many familiar, default means of representing space. And because the spatial histories they were piecing together required research across multiple domains – official city agencies, national regulatory bodies, various industries and special interest groups, individual stake-holders – the students also had to consider the breath of the “discourse network” invested in these spatial debates: what diverse entities were involved in the geographies of these stories? Did these various groups think about and represent space in similar or different ways across time – and could we reconcile their distinctive “cultural techniques” of mapping?

Several students began their projects searching eagerly for the “open data motherlode” that, they imagined, would reveal clear temporal and spatial patterns and allow them to make big, profound, earth-shattering claims: “I intend to cartographically correlate huge changes in socioeconomic data to movements in these massive infrastructures.” Yet, not surprisingly, those data epiphanies never arose. Epiphanies are hard to engineer (especially when you never studied statistics!). Eventually, most students came to appreciate how their overly-ambitious expectations were conditioned by the prevalence of GIS and the equally ubiquitous, and fetishistic, deification and reification of Big Data.[34] They, like many people, conflated “mapping” with “data visualization,” and the “GIS mindset” proved stifling to many of them. As historian David Bodenhamer explains, GIS can appear “reductionist in its epistemology”; it sometimes “forces data into categories; it defines space in limited and literal ways instead of the metaphorical frames that are equally reflective of human experience.”[35] For many students, those words rang true.

But mapping isn’t synonymous with GIS (and GIS isn’t necessarily about positivism and rigidity). Despite the fact that digital mapping platforms seem to call for the exploitation of data sources – the database behind the map seems to demand quantity and precision – cartography is not necessarily all about Big Data. The personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative, can also be sketched out on a map – that is, if doing so would be both illuminating to the story or argument one is trying to tell, and ethically sound; making entities visible and locatable can, in some cases, represent a threat or a breach of necessary anonymity.[36] Eventually coming to terms with the “non-monumentality” of their conclusions, accepting that they wouldn’t be creating a heat map showing conclusive evidence of quantifiable macro-scale changes, our students recognized the breadth and flexibility and nuance of mapping as a method. While cartography doesn’t readily lend itself to the expression of ambiguity – maps don’t have “buts,” “ifs,” “howevers,” or other qualifying statements to convey the “interpretative nature of the mapping process” – they still found ways to map the qualitative, the necessarily incomplete and inconclusive, the fuzzy.[37] Sometimes that meant infusing a little poetry into their data models to capture the nuance and nebulousness of their subjects.

Visualizing Uncertainty, via Jibonananda Sanyal, Song Zhang & Gargi Bhattacharya, “A User Study to Compare Four Uncertainty Visualization Methods for 1D and 2D Datasets” IEEE Transactions…
Denis Wood, Everything Sings: streetlamp footprints
Denis Wood, Everything Sings: streetlamp footprints

Yet there’s a limit to the method’s flexibility; there’s only so far we can stretch the topography without shattering its underlying topology. Despite whatever opportunities we might have to detourn, or subvert, the map and its underlying database – to build self-reflexive critiques of the cartographic enterprise right into the map itself – we sometimes run up against the operative or epistemological limitations of these systems. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift note the “difficulty of mapping something that is only partially locatable in time-space,” and of belaboring our subjects with mapping’s “history of subordination to an Enlightenment logic in which everything can be surveyed and pinned down.”[38] Sometimes it’s simply impossible to pin things down as a cartographic point, line, or area.

But the challenges go beyond dealing with a lack of spatial precision. Simply put, not all stories are primarily spatial. Not everything is mappable, and not everything belongs on a map. Framing all research questions, all narratives, all phenomena in terms of space, as the spatial turn inclines us to do, often distorts the content. It forces the territory – the phenomena we’re trying to represent, the histories and stories we’re trying to tell, the arguments we’re trying to make – to conform to the map in order to render itself representable. That translation of physical and human reality into data models and plottable points and lines often results in the loss of something essential and irretrievable. Such critiques have been lodged against “indigenous cartography,” or well-meaning development organizations’ promotion of cartographic literacy among indigenous populations in order to “empower” them to assert their own land rights. “The process of mapping,” Nancy Lee Peluso argued in an influential 1995 article, “almost forces the interpretation of customary rights to resources territorially, thereby changing both the claim and the representation of it….”[39]

Many of my students offered insightful reflections on the values and limitations of mapping as a method and a mode of presentation in their own projects[40]:

I think proximity is a point to be made, but not the whole point, and it might push users to get caught up in spatial observations.

I’ve noticed that all the presentations involved navigation tasks that would seem obscure without the author walking us through them. Why do the maps come so alive when we have a guide walking us through them?

When you see my map from far enough away, it looks like all of Brooklyn is covered in green circles, but zoom in further and there are gaps begging to be filled in. And I think for now at least, that’s how it’s supposed to look.

They came to accept that some gaps are supposed to be there, that their projects will be defined by holes and incompleteness.[41] In fact, as Peter Turchi writes in Maps of the Imagination, “a fuller understanding of what we don’t know” – or, I would add, of what we are not meant to know (e.g., what data is classified or otherwise obscured) – “is itself new knowledge, and redefines what we know. Omissions, intended or unintended, provoke the imagination.”[42] In recognizing what maps can and can’t do well, these neophyte cartographers were able to look at their maps more critically as media, and at mapping as a method — as only one of myriad media and methods at their disposal, and perhaps not the optimal ones for every job.

Herding Dragons: Mending Cartography’s Epistemic and Political Gaps

The failings of our mapping platform offered many happy accidents: in particular, they highlighted the limitations of the contemporary “mapping impulse.” By leaving gaps and intentional (and sure, maybe some lazy and unintentional) imperfections in their own maps, our students were able to graphically embed a critique of the cartographic enterprise. And recently, as I designed the next iteration of the course, “Maps as Media” – a critical study of the rhetorics, poetics, politics, and epistemologies of maps from across myriad geographic and cultural contexts – I sought readings and examples that would articulate those critiques, that would contextualize all those tensions we encountered in previous semesters. In the process, I, an outsider to geography, came to recognize that those gaps existed not only in the topography of the map or its underlying topology – the epistemological and political “dragons” historically depicted on maps’ uncharted territories or waters (“hic sunt dracones”). Those dragons also reside within the critical study of cartography itself – the topology of the discipline – and particularly in the not-terribly-diverse, Western-oriented discourse and its ocularcentric orientation.

The Age of Exploration and its ranks of cartographers were certainly dominated by Western white dudes (as has been most spatial theory). Yet in recent decades – particularly since the rise of “post-positivist” cultural geography, “critical cartography,” and approaches to counter-mapping – the field of geography has attended to issues of gender, race, class, and other forms of diversity. Cartography has embraced diversity both by mapping “difference” and inequality – that is, taking these issues as its cartographic subject matter – and by incorporating diverse and under-represented perspectives and subjectivities into its cartographic ideas and practices.[43] That said, it’s not uncommon to find recent map-related publications (particularly in the tech-oriented press) that mention nary a woman, collected volumes on cartographic ideas that include a trifling proportion of female or ethnically diverse authors, and conference panels featuring a wall of white men. These shortcomings are of course not unique to geography, but they’re striking nonetheless.

Wow – look at all those white guys! “The Future of Mapping” panel @ Mutek 2015

Through their work with other cultures, geographers and workers in international development organizations have recognized the diversity of practices by which people both cognitively and cartographically map their lands. Particularly illuminating has been the way that indigenous groups across the world “have embraced mapping as a way of reclaiming their sovereignty over the lands, negotiating aboriginal rights, and regaining dignity during conflicts with governments and institutions.” [44] While these indigenous mapping practices have proven successful, in some cases, in gaining recognition, and even reparation, for indigenous populations who have either been forcibly moved from their lands or are under threat of relocation, those successes sometimes come with a cost. In order to relay their claims in standard cartographic formats, these groups often have to reconceive their territories (a misnomer, in many cases, since some indigenous groups regard land as a common resource), or twist their topologies, to fit the map. “The main argument against the use of online mapping technologies,” Sébastien Caquard says, “is that it reinforces the subordination of indigenous spatial world-views to western technologies and perspectives.” It imposes ill-fitting cartographic conventions on a conceptual topology – a cultural technique of mapping – that evolved along a very different genealogical tradition.

What we learn from this mismatch is that many indigenous populations have their own long-standing mapping traditions. And those traditions might have material forms of communication, functions, modes of circulation, and public uses that differ dramatically from those of western maps. Recognizing these alternative traditions, Pickles suggests, would ideally prompt a “reopening of the cartographic canon to the cognitive, performative, semantic and symbolic richness of mappings, as well as the diversity of material products that embody those mappings.”[45] There are myriad ways of staking claim to or making sense of the lands (or seas, in the case of Inuit populations and other sea-faring or ice-dwelling groups) on which one lives, myriad ways of communicating what those lands mean to the population who chooses to represent it, myriad forms that those spatial representations can take, and myriad ways of evaluating their “truthfulness” or validity.[46] Ideally, our “mappings” – perhaps a more inclusive term than cartographies – would embrace that diversity.


M.W. Pearce and M.J. Hermann, “They Would Not Take Me There; People, Places and Stories from Champlain’s Travels in Canada, 1603-1616”

Contemporary mapping techniques and technologies, despite their “objectifying,” “rationalizing” and purported “masculinist” tendencies, aren’t inherently and exclusively imperialist or patriarchal, or necessarily incapable of dealing with diversity and different worldviews. It’s possible, Mei-Po Kwan argues, to appropriate and detourn geospatial technologies “to counter their objectifying vision.” Feminist applications of geospatial technologies promise to integrate “bodies, emotions, and subjectivities” into cartography by, for example, drawing inspiration from map artists and map activists, and experimenting with “more expressive and evocative forms of visual practices” – using the GPS to plot and reflect on one’s personal experiences, for instance, or making movies from 3D GIS imagery.[47] While geographers have, as part of their self-reflexive turn, thought critically about the politics of the cartographic gaze and the epistemologies embedded in their “optical regimes,” there’s still one persistent oversight: the focus on visuality. Nearly all definitions of maps distinguish them as a means of visual communication. In the preface to the first volume of the massive and monumental History of Cartography series, J. Brian Harley and David Woodward offer what is widely regarded as one of the most inclusive definitions of maps: “graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.”[48] Yet even this expansive, capacious definition limits the means of cartographic expression to the visual.

Yes, graphic, from graphe, implies writing and drawing – but graphe is also at the root of telegraphy, phonography, and cinematography, all forms of inscription that when “played back,” or consumed, are experienced through vision, sound, and even texture.[49] Recognizing the sensory diversity of “graphic” media might allow us also to explore the potential for more sensorially diverse maps – maps better able to capture the aesthetic richness of our experience of place, and that needn’t collapse that multisensoriality into a single-channel representation. This concern with aesthetics isn’t simply about creating more “realistic” or immersive or creative or beautiful maps. Rather, expanding the sensory repertoire of our mapping techniques and technologies allows us to sanction and codify the critical importance of “non-ocularcentric” modes of experience and ways of knowing. The growth of sensory history and sensory studies – fields that recognize historical shifts in our prioritization of the various senses, that acknowledge the importance of non-visual perception in, say, nautical navigation, military operations, and urban planning – attests to the “validation” of our “other senses.”[50] What counts as a map – a term so capacious in its inclusivity of content – should perhaps be similarly inclusive in its material forms and sensory modes. If we think about maps as media, we can recognize the plethora of media at our disposal, all of which could potentially be marshaled to “graph” our spatial understandings.

Consider the recent explosion of interest in sound maps, which aim to get at the sonic character of various places. There’s a long history for such cultural techniques of mapping: Aboriginal cultures have long used songlines, or “oral maps” to navigate across Australia by musically connecting paths in the sky, among the constellations, to paths on the earth.[51] The Aborigines have cultivated a diverse landscape of cartography: the people of Fitzroy Crossing created a 26 x 32-foot painting demonstrating each person’s relation to parts of the Great Sandy Desert, and they presented it in 1997 before the Native Title Tribunal.[52] Australia’s High Court now permits indigenous populations to submit song, dance, and story as valid evidence in land claims cases.[53] Consider also the creation of tactile and sonic maps for the vision-impaired; users can touch a site on a tactile map and hear information about that location.[54] Finally, think about the possibilities of “deep mapping,” a multisensory, multi-media, multi-authored, inherently unstable and subjective approach to mapping that has been addressed in several recent publications, including my own.[55]

These maps – like those in my infrastructure mapping studio – encompass media in multiple formats, and methods ranging from GIS analysis to oral history and documentary photography. We might regard mapping as the “umbrella” strategy encompassing these other methods and modalities, or as only one component of a “deep” spatially-oriented methodology – one that incorporates other modes of inquiry and expression. Regardless, it’s important that we question the role played by each component of our conceptual and methodological mapping toolbox — that we resist the temptation to fetishize the data or the map, that we appreciate what each of our tools can and can’t do, and that we devise a strategy by which these various tools can work in a complementary fashion to do justice to the rich spatial and temporal dimensions of our subjects of inquiry.

Maps are media: they make themselves both actively and passively present in our everyday lives. They codify and inscribe those contemporary, historical, and perhaps even future realities and give them direction and meaning. They inform, persuade, and perhaps even manipulate. They validate or marginalize those to whom they do or don’t give voice. They embody our ways of knowing and relating to the towns, cities, nations, planets, and galaxies in which we live. They shape the politics by which we govern, shepherd, or exploit our environments, from the micro to the macro scale. And even in their gaps, they give shape to our limitations – to what we don’t and perhaps can’t know, at least not in the shape of a map. Those lacunae delineate that which can’t be pinned down – all the stuff that slips through the grand “graticule,” the epistemic grid of lats and longs.

*   *   *   *   *

[1] According to a recent Pew study, 41% of smartphone owners used their phones to access maps during the week-long study period. See Aaron Smith and Dana Page, “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015” Pew Research Center (April 1, 2015):

[2] See Jo Guldi, “What Is the Spatial TurnSpatial Humanities (n.d.); Phil Hubbard and Rob Kitchin, Eds., Key Thinkers on Space and Place, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010); Barney Warf and Santa Arias, Eds., The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” Diacritics 16:1 (Spring 1986): 22.

[4] Tom Conley, The Self-Made Map: Cartographic Writing in Early Modern France (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[5] Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the 17th Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[6] Anna Marie Claire Godlewska, Geography Unbound: French Geographic Science from Cassini to Humboldt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999): 246. See also Lauren Klein’s talks and posts on data visualization.

[7] John Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World (London: Routledge, 2004): 134-6.

[8] Timothy Mitchell, “The World as Exhibition” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31:2 (April 1989): 217-36.

[9] Lewis Mumford, “Patrick Geddes, Victor Branford and Applied Sociology in England: The Social Survey, Regionalism and Urban Planning” In H. E. Barnes, Ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press (abridged edition, [1948] 1966); Boyd Rayward, The Universe of Information: The World of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organization (Moscow: International Federation of Documentation, 1975); Nader Vossoughian, Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2011); Alex Wright, Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[10] Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014): 185

[11] See also Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, “Introduction: Becoming Topological of Culture” Theory, Culture & Society 29:4/5 (2012): 3-35. The authors argue that the “becoming topological” of culture is reflected in “practices of sorting, naming, numbering, comparing, listing, and calculating”; our predominant cultural forms include “lists, models, networks, clouds, fractals,…flows” and assemblages (4-5). Geographers and political scientists, they argue, “seek to describe dynamic relations and mobilities that cannot be contained by scaled spatial entities, such as territory” (5). “The effect of those practices is both to introduce new continuities into a discontinuous world by establishing equivalences or similitudes, and to make and mark discontinuities through repeated contrasts” (4).

[12] Lury et al.: 4.

[13] See Merle Patchett, “Geo-Imaginaries: Topology vs TopographyExperimental Geography in Practice (September 9, 2010).

[14] See Gary Christopherson and Craig Wissler, “Topology and Topological Rules: Geometric Properties that are Maintained in Spatial Databases” “Fundamentals of GIS” course, University of Arizona, Fall 2006.

[15] See Lisa Gitelman, “Media as Historical Subjects” In Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): 7.

[16] See, for example, Arthur H. Robinson, The Look of Maps (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976); J. B. Harley, “Deconstructing the Map” Cartographica 26:2 (Spring 1989): 1-20; A. H. McEachren, How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design (New York: Guilford Press, 1995); Denis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 1992); and the work of Mark Monmonier.

[17] Christian Jacob, The Sovereign Map: Theoretical Approaches In Cartography Throughout History, Tom Conley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006 [1992]): xv.

[18] John Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World (London: Routledge, 2004): 114.

[19] Bill Rankin, “Cartography and the Reality of Boundaries” Perspecta 42 (Spring 2010: 44.

[20] Bill Rankin, “Redrawing the MapArchitecture Boston 18:2 (Summer 2015).

[21] Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson & Martin Dodge, “Unfolding Mapping Practices: A New Epistemology for Cartography” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38:3 (July 2013): 480.

[22] Matthew W. Wilson and Monica Stephens, “GIS as Media?” In Susan P. Mains, Julie Cupples and Chris Lukinbeal, Eds., Mediated Geographies and Geographies of Media (Springer, forthcoming 2016; draft available here.

[23] Media theorist Friedrich Kittler defines the discourse network as “the network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data” (Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Trans., Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990: 369).

[24] Sébastien Caquard, Interview with Eva Salinas, “The Politics of Making MapsCanadian International Council (November 12, 2014). See also Alexis Madrigal, “How Google Builds its Maps – and What It Means for the Future of EverythingThe Atlantic (September 5, 2012).

[25] Laura Bliss, “Who Owns the Digital Map of the World?The Atlantic’s CityLab (June 25, 2012).

[26] Laura Kurgan, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology & Politics (New York: Zone, 2013): 31.

[27] Kurgan 26. See also the work of Lisa Parks.

[28] Pickles 13.

[29] Bernhard Siegert, “The Map Is the Territory” Radical Philosophy 169 (September/October 2011): 13.

[30] Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Cultural Techniques: Preliminary Remarks” Theory, Culture & Society 30:6 (2013): 3-19; Bernhard Siegert, “Cacography or Communication?: Cultural Techniques in German Media Studies” Grey Room 29 (Winter 2008): 26-47.

[31] For more on cartography’s self-critique of its own ways of framing knowledge, see Jeremy W. Crampton and John Krygier, “An Introduction to Critical Cartography” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 4:1 (2006): 11-33; and Denis Wood, “Counter-Mapping and the Death of Cartography” In Rethinking the Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 2010): 120-129.

[32] Harvey Grabar, “Smartphones and the Uncertain Future of ‘Spatial Thinking’” City Lab (September 9, 2014). See also Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping” In Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, Eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 347-60; Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960); Jody Rosen (“The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS” New York Times Magazine (November 10, 2014)) on London taxi drivers’ extraordinary spatial literacy and capacity for improvised navigation.

[33] Laura Kurgan, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology & Politics (New York: Zone, 2013): 16-7.

[34] See my “Methodolatry and the Art of MeasurePlaces (November 2013).

[35] David J. Bodenhamer, “The Potential of Spatial Humanities” In David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, Eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010): 24.

[36] Some things, like domestic violence shelters, or the location of other at-risk populations, should not be mapped. See Selena Larson, “Crisis Shelter Workers Want Google Maps to Hide the Locations of Their SheltersDaily Dot (May 29, 2015).

[37] Pickles 35.

[38] Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift, Introduction to Pile and Thrift, Eds., Mapping the Subject: Geographies of Cultural Transformation (London: Routledge, 1995): 1.

[39] Nancy Lee Peluso, “Whose Woods Are These? Counter-Mapping Forest Territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia” Antipode 27:4 (1995): 388. As Denis Wood explains, indigenous people, when encouraged to map their “territory” “means taking on board all of professional cartography’s spatial epistemology, including its commitment to discrete boundaries, especially since these tend ot be bundled into available GPS and GIS technologies” (Denis Wood, Rethinking the Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 2010): 141).

[40] For more student reflections, see Shannon Mattern, “Cartographic ExcessWords in Space (December 17, 2011); “Embracing Those Gaps on the Map: Urban Media Archaeology, Take 3Words in Space (December 15, 2012); and “Mapping Gyros, Juloos, Disaster Ruins, Beer, Fallout Shelters, Drive-Ins, Serial Killers, and Other StuffWords in Space (December 18, 2013).

[41] For more on the incompleteness and partiality of maps, see Berhard Siegert, “Exiting the Project” and “The Permanently Projected World” In Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015): 142-5; and Peter Turchi, “A Wide Landscape of Snows” Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2004): 27-71.

[42] Turchi 47.

[43] See Gillian Rose’s Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) for more on the gender of geographic practice, and feminist approaches to cartography.

[44] Sébastien Caquard, Interview with Eva Salinas, “The Politics of Making MapsCanadian International Council (November 12, 2014).

[45] Pickles 15.

[46] Claudio Aporta and Gita Laidler recognized that, in mapping Inuit knowledge, one must represent both land and sea use: “the large expanses of blue that delineate the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay, among other major water bodies, are left relatively empty in most maps. These ‘blank’ areas are actually ice-covered white expanses for three quarters of the northern year” (“ISIP Seeks International Partners” IASSA.Net listserv (December 14, 2004); referenced in Woods Rethinking the Power of Maps). And Margaret Pearce and Michael Hermann incorporated Native narratives into their maps of Samuel de Champlain’s travels in Canada in the 17th century (Michael Hermann and Margaret Pearce, “’They Would Not Take Me There’: People, Places, and Stories from Champlain’s Travels in Canada 1603 – 1616Cartographic Perspectives 66 (Fall 2010).

[47] Mei-Po Kwan, “Affecting Geospatial Technologies: Toward a Feminist Politics of Emotion” The Professional Geographer 59:1 (2007): 24, 30. See also the growing body of literature on “affective geographies.”

[48] J. Brian Harley and David Woodward, Preface to Harley and Woodward, Eds., The History of Cartography, Vol. 1, Book 1(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): xvi.

[49] See James J. Hodge, “Marey’s Graphic MethodTransliteracies Project, Research Report (March 5, 2006), and Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Writing Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) for more on the “graphic” root of many historical media.

[50] See, for instance, the work of Constance Classen, David Howes, and Mark M. Smith, Diane Ackerman’s The Natural History of the Senses (New York: Random House, 1990) and the Sensory Studies research network. See also my “Silent, Invisible City: Mediating Urban Experience for the Other Senses” In Frank Eckardt et al., Eds., Mediacity: Situations, Practices, and Encounters (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2009): 155-76.

[51] Ray P. Norris & Bill Yidumduma Harney, “Songlines and Navigation in Wardaman and Other Australian Aboriginal Cultures” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17:2 (in press): 1-14.

[52] Geraldine Brooks, “The Painted Desert” The New Yorker (July 28, 2003).

[53] Grace Koch, “We Have the Song, So We Have the Land: Song and Ceremony as Proof of Ownership in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Claims” AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 33 (July 2013). See also Ronald Conner on how the Tapeba people of Northeast Brazil use toré, “a song- and percussion-driven circle dance and sacred ceremony” to specify land claims (“Land and Indigeneity in Toré Songs of the Brazilian Tapeba PeopleEthnomusicology Review 17 (2012)).

[54] “Tactile Map Automated Production” The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute:

[55] David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (Indiana University Press, 2015); Shannon Mattern, Deep Mapping the Media City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Todd Presner, David Shepard & Yoh Kawano, HyperCites: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press / metaLab Projects, 2014).

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