Cartography: the old versus the new? an evening in De Balie

[this post also appears on The Mobile City weblog]

On December 14th 2009 De Balie – an Amsterdam-based center for culture and politics – organized an evening about old and new cartographies. Participants were Ferjan Ormeling (Emeritus Professor Cartography, Faculty of Geographical Sciences, Utrecht University), Henk van Houtum (Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Political Geography, Head of the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research), Maarten Keulemans (science journalist), Jelle Reumer (director Natural Museum Rotterdam, Special Professor at Utrecht University), Lucas Keijning (NEMO science center), and me. The evening was lead by Volkskrant journalist Martijn van Calmthout. The evening was set up as a prelude to the presentation of a new world map the day after in The Hague. From the announcement:

We have been making maps for centuries, to establish territorial borders or mark safe routes. A map is a model of reality, and the terrain of a fascinating branch of science: cartography. Maps represent social and political choices, which start forming their own truths. For example the Persian Gulf is not the Persian Gulf everywhere, the world on its head or with China in the middle all of a sudden looks very different, and maps today seem less complete because of an increasing number of ‘white spots’…


Some of the issues addressed this evening concerned the relation between model and reality, the consequences of new map-making media technologies for society and politics, and – unavoidably it seems in such popularizing science discussions – the question whether new developments are good or bad? I was invited to talk about the influence of mobile and locative media and cartographic representations.

Cartographer Ferjan Ormeling started the evening with an overview of cartography as a professional scientific discipline. He defined cartography as “the transmission of spatial information for decision-making”. In a few slides he walked through cartographic history, mainly from a western perspective as the attempt to explore and chart unknown territories, with ensuing overseas trade and later colonization in its wake. Some of the interesting topics he touched upon included the fact that cartography is always subjective and culturally determined. Dutch maps for instance often leave out ditches because they are everywhere, whereas in Belgium they are included on maps. The world maps we know today are clearly Euro-centric, placing other territories in the periphery of Europe. Maps were hugely important for an upcoming sense of nationalism (a point made by Benedict Anderson in his well-known work “Imagined Communities” 1991). Nation-states were now drawn in monochrome colors, clearly separating them from their neighbors. Further, names on maps are often surrounded by controversy. For example in the 1970s attempts were made to modernize the spelling of Dutch town and city names. This met with fierce opposition from local government, because this meant some places would lose their name-based exclusivity (Veghel sounds more chic than Veggel, ditto for Wijchen – Wijgen). Map-making therefore always involves selection, manipulation, and generalization. What is displayed? What is left out? Where are borders drawn? What is on the map and what lies outside of the map? Ormeling closed his talk by assessing the relevance of new technologies like Google Maps. Here it became interesting, since Ormeling tenaciously clung to the idea of the unique professional expertise of cartographers. While digital technologies certainly are useful, Ormeling argued, the role of cartographers remains important because they are the ones who “fill in” these satellite images, and “give meaning” to those satellite views. Sure, there are interesting attempts by amateurs to engage map-making (such as Openstreetmap). But there are lots of things professionals can and amateurs can’t do, like accurately mapping a rugged coastline.

Then Henk van Houtum and I joined the discussion. Van Houtum argued new geographic technologies like TomTom and Google Maps turn all of us into geographers. But very uncritical geographers. We unwittingly feed all kinds of information to search engines. Van Houtum worries about the loss of personal autonomy as we are surrender ourselves to various digital search and control systems. But on the more positive side, new technologies enable far more people to engage in place-making and representing spatial knowledge. The old monopoly of mapmaking by geographers under the auspice of the nation-state is crumbling, and that is a good thing.

I argued that under the influence of mobile and locative media, cartography has changed from being a predominantly geographical medium in which the representation of space and place is central, to a social medium in which online social networking acquires a cartographic element. Our mediated social relations are now being ‘rooted’ in physical places. A good example of such a locative social network is Bliin, a project by Selene Kolman, who was in the audience, and Stef Kolman. screenshot_Bliin

This has in part been a response to our perception of the internet as placeless, and broader social and spatial shifts often grouped under the name ‘globalization’. Further, New technologies offer people the opportunity to write space and place with their own experiences (e.g. by ‘geotagging’ places), rather than just reading the maps made by others (see e.g. Greenfield & Shepard about “read/write urbanism” p. 12-13). This means cartography is no longer the prerogative of professionals but indeed, as Henk van Houtum said, we have all become geographers. Already in 1946 geographer J.K. Wright proposed in front of the Association of American Geographers that the earth had been largely mapped by conventional geographical method. The time had come to map our earth all over again. Wright called upon geographers to map folk knowledge of places, and more aesthetic experiences of our environments. This would vastly expand the terrain of classic geography to include what Wright called ‘geosophical’ knowledge. Wright would probably have been thrilled to see how his plea is being realized today… A third change is that maps now consist not only of mostly spatial information but also temporal information. The historicity of place as a process is made visible by the range of micro-narratives that are attached to places through locative media. Maps become far more dynamic representations of spatial and temporal knowledge. A nice example is the project Droombeek, by Edward Mac Gillavry, who was also present this evening, and Peter Dubois.


In this project inhabitants of Roombeek, an area of the city Enschede which was destroyed in 2000 by a huge fireworks disaster, recount their memories and stories of their neighborhood. These stories are made available to others by taking a GPS-walk. A fourth change is the database structure of geographical knowledge captured in maps. We can now query items through maps. Most of these searches are about simple properties like categories of places and proximity, such as finding restaurants nearby. However while we still can’t search for sadness in New York (PDF 2,4 MB; Russell – Headmap Manifesto – p. 31), we are already awfully close.. Fifth, new cartographies alter our subjective experiences of space and place. For instance, locative media can inform a more aesthetic experience of space and mobility. Someone who is working on GPS-based cartography as a new form of landscape painting is Esther Polak, who also joined this evening – just back from a trip to Nigeria. And what about the fact that in many locative media views the ego is the center of the map? You no longer have to first find your position on the map. Rather, the environment revolves around you. Does this literally lead to a more ‘ego-centric’ worldview? Finally, maps are increasingly often used as a way to visualize and transfer increasingly complex datasets. Maps are becoming metaphors to represent information, and for thinking. An organization that has been doing this for while is Informationlab by ‘information architect’ Auke Touwslager, who also attended the evening (yes, good crowd present..). To summarize, under the influence of locative media mapping tends to shift from mostly objectifying representations to highly subjective, from general to thematic representations, and from visualizing topological rather than topographical information. I wanted to raise some more ‘political’ issues of these developments but – alas – time was running short… (I couldn’t even bring in half of the above).

It was interesting to see how the audience, and ‘old school geographer’ Ormeling, reacted to this new media story. Ormeling himself did not feel these developments had much to do with his profession as a cartographer, apart from being handy new instruments. This strikingly parallels the dominant reaction of another professional audience: architects and planners. New media technologies as instruments yes, but investigating the consequences of these technologies for the professional practice itself… no. In the audience, meanwhile, someone wondered in exasperation “this is al very nice but who actually wants to know all the time where their friends are?”. Indeed only one or two people raised their hands. Although the predominantly white middle-aged male audience perhaps might not exactly be representative of very active mobile media users, this question of course is a legitimate one. All talks about new representations of knowledge and new ‘participant audiences’ or ‘networked publics’ in spite, who are “we” (we – the people more or less professionally dealing with geo-locative media) actually representing in our talks and thoughts? The majority of people, at least during this evening, seem very skeptical about these developments. The discussion immediately turned to the pervasive influence of mobile media themselves in everyday life and all sorts of ethical discussions, rather than pausing for a moment to look at media developments and their influence on cartography. Too bad this somewhat fell of radar at the end of the evening. Luckily, columnist Jelle Reumer restored this by evoking the poetics of maps. Looking at maps above all brings up half-forgotten memories of the places one once was and where beautiful or sad things happened. Maps also stir the imagination about places one would perhaps never go. I thought Reumer’s short talk was a nice closure of the evening, which put matters in a broader perspective. Aside from their obvious differences (differences that do matter, as I’ve tried to show here), to what extend does it matter whether such imaginations occur by holding a map made of paper or by looking at a handheld screen?

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