December 07, 2010

The Power of Google Maps

Hardly a week goes by without there being some flare up about how a disputed border represented in Google Maps leads to real world consequences. Whether it was the Chinese labelling of place names in Arunachal Pradesh, or the recent confrontation over a mis-drawn border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica leading to an 'invasion', Google Maps has found itself at the center of some touchy geopolitical disputes.

We're not the first ones to mention these disputes. Indeed, we rarely (and belatedly), if ever, comment on them. But because of the persistence of news stories on this topic, we're compelled to comment on the broader implications of what John Gravois, in his interesting Washington Monthly piece 'The Agnostic Cartographer', points to as the problem of Google's attempts at ambivalence when such disputes arise. The official Google policy is to avoid culpability in such disputes by relying on previous international conventions and providing multiple representations of places in order to placate both sides of a potential conflict. But what do these attempts at neutrality accomplish?

Ultimately, Google's ambivalence serves to further obfuscate, and reinforce, the power of their maps. As J.B. Harley so astutely pointed out over twenty years ago, "Much of the power of the map, as a representation of social geography, is that it operates behind a mask of a seemingly neutral science. It hides and denies its social dimensions at the same time as it legitimates" (Harley 1989: 7). So by attempting to withdraw from "some of the world's touchiest geopolitical disputes", Google is at once depoliticizing and further extending the influence of their maps, as Gravois points out in his article. But, as Harley asserts, "the map is never neutral" (14) -- so why attempt to make it seem that way?

The point being, just because Google Maps are produced and used somewhat differently than the hand-drawn maps of old, does not somehow mean that the nature of the map is fundamentally different and that the corpus of theory built up around critical cartography is no longer relevant. Indeed, the same ideas apply quite nicely to both traditional, expert-oriented cartography and what has become known as 'neogeography' or 'volunteered geographic information'.

These issues and ideas seem to have been lost in all of the popular debate about Google and geopolitics, even in excellent summaries such as Gravois'. Maps, in whatever form they may take, remain important reflections of the world, albeit reflections of a particular, limited worldview and set of interests (in the case of Google, the interest in minimizing conflict and maximizing profits) that should not be ignored. At the same time, however, maps also have a powerful role in shaping the world in which we live; a role that arguably should not be left to giant corporations or powerful governments.

Further reading:
  • Crampton, Jeremy and John Krygier. 2005. "An Introduction to Critical Cartography". ACME: An International e-Journal for Critical Geographies 4(1):11-33.
  • Harley, J.B. 1989. "Deconstructing the map". Cartographica 26(2):1-20.
  • Wood, Denis. 1992. The Power of Maps. The Guilford Press.


  1. Hey Taylor, meant to tell you last week that I really enjoyed your take on the subject. I tried to articulate my impression, essentially that google provides commercial maps and the government(s) should provide official maps (and hey, how about military leaders learn the difference?), but it turns out popsci wrote the article for me -

    Keep up the good work, floatingsheep!

  2. Thanks for the compliments, Dan! And thanks for the link to the Popsci article -- I hadn't seen it yet.


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