On colonial cartography

I came across this thought-provoking article on Real Life Mag by Apoorva Tadepalli today on how contemporary mapping — including the ones that are enabled by the Internet (think whenever you share your location on Snapchat, Instagram, or Strava) — is inherently derived from the colonial practice of the projecting borders and limitations, and consequently a form of power play. It is very well-written, one that left you lingering at your desk for so long, as your brain began to connect the dots.

Some history of maps and its contribution to the rise of the state, before they started to “create dialogues and create identities”, and behave as a “piece of literature or devices of expression to advance particular agendas”:

In his book Rethinking the Power of Maps, Denis Wood points out that for most of history, maps did not exist; but that from about the 17th century onwards, when they became common, they were defined as “a representation of a part of the earth’s surface.” This definition, he argues, naturalizes the map and its role in our society — it frames mapping ability as a natural or sometimes biological impulse. But, as he reminds us, “millions of Americans crossed the continent without maps, Genghis Khan and Charlemagne ruled without maps, Rome administered its empire without a map, pharaohs controlled Egypt without a map, the Bible was written without once referring to a map.” Landscapes were seen, observed, and talked about for the purpose of ruling and exploring.

Maps are used by the modern state to define and claim outside ownership of territories: the map came into existence out of a political agenda to root people to entities to which they would have to be loyal, but could not see. It narrativizes us and our surroundings, and makes them legible. Maps are very effective at manufacturing a sense of centralized identity where one otherwise does not exist: they link places to “things,” like citizenship and taxes.

On the confusion of the agency of the practice of map-making:

Cartographer J. Brian Harley argued that the map was a fusion of the agency of the mapmaker and the mapmaker’s patron — there is a tension between the different interests of the craftsman and the statesman: one’s power is technical, while the other’s is political; one’s “distortion of map content” is unconscious, while the other is deliberate. These were both equally influential forces on the map, but because of their opposition, the authority of the map was diffused, “erasing authorship.”

The article soon delves into the role of contemporary mapping in capitalism. Citing several advertisements used to promote the glamorous reputation of Manhattan as an ideal city to do business from, “to create a sense of the vastness of monolithic America, a unified and comprehensible whole”, there is no difference between mapping for states and mapping for corporations, as:

Maps created by colonial governments were in the business of creating political identities, while these advertisements reinforce them. But they are both the same kind of artifact, legitimizing the city by creating an omnipresent, memorable character; both coming from comparable, centralized entities in whose interest it is to alienate individuals from the physical relationship they have with their immediate surroundings.

On how digital contemporary mapping helps us create a narrative of our everyday lives, consequently giving us some forms of identities, and in extension, augmenting our social capital:

With apps like Google’s Tour Builder, we can create maps of our lives and travels, taking other people through our movement. We can pinpoint where specific events happened and integrate photos, videos, or text into sections of a story that are organized by location; everyone is the potential author of a Lonely Planet-like guide to a new city. On a smaller scale, Strava, a mapping app, allows us to track and map our daily life to create interactive “stories.” On Strava, every “walk” has a name, and a place on our personalized account. Apps like these make map a verb rather than a noun, in a new way; the map becomes a way of talking about a place, and by extension talking about ourselves. It is a way of narrativising our lives, turning our daily life into stories about who we are by what we do.

The personalised ways in which locations are used on social media make a city both more disconnected and more legible to the outsider at the same time: less and less relevant as navigational information, but increasingly efficient at communicating personalities, lives, individual narrations, identities.

This practice of mapping assigns physical places with social capital and a social function. Place becomes absorbed into person; it is a function of person, rather than the other way around. Sixteenth-century rulers would hang maps in their palaces to represent the power of the cities they ruled; we, too, integrate our personae with the spaces we occupy, and in some ways own, because we have written these places onto maps. Knowing the actual place becomes irrelevant compared with knowing it in the context of a personal narrative, which requires knowing the place’s social value.

Which means, colonialism BUT also with capitalism! :

It would seem as though we have co-opted the impulse to narrativise our existence from the very means that institutions of power have used on us for centuries. But these mapping technologies require the individual to first be packaged into a consumable product, which can be equally totalizing: we are living under pre-anticipated conditions of our cities, and embodying the self that is required for the products we make. This social media form of mapping, then, creates personality and imposes a reality onto spaces that are inherently consumerist, in the same way that authoritarian imposition, both state and corporate, once did for the same locations.

In this way, people who update their Snap Map location or their Strava account or geotag their Instagram photos, because they feel obliged to be seen, are using the same modes of self-dissemination as Fiss, Doerr, and Carroll, or European empires: under the influence of corporate and national ideas of the self. National or corporate institutions instill monetary or political agendas in maps; the map-making ability of social media creates the social equivalent.

Also, related read, which I may also want to unpack later: Edward Said’s Imaginative Geography and Geopolitical Mapping

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