“There is no such thing as an objective map”

imagenyp   Western part of Asia Minor

From The Lionel Pincus & Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library

James Wan provided the title quote in his thoughtful critique of Google Maps in Terrabyte Incognita: Africa Might Not Look Like You Think It Does.

Using Africa as the test case, he demonstrates how our views of the continent have changed–but not evolved– over the last two hundred years. In the 18th century, there was little known about Africa except for the coastlines. In the 19th century, the a map of Africa, many inland parts still unknown, were divided up among the various European imperialist powers for the purposes of colonization.  Every map is a projection of the creator’s inherent interests:

“No map is completely objective and every cartographer has to make countless decisions over what is more important and what is less so. Some of these choices may be purely technical, some may be issues of historical convention, and some may be informed by ideological assumptions. But these decisions − as invisible as they are in the final product − have to be made and they all fundamentally change how we see the world.”

Johannes Stabius, Johann Heinrich Lambert, Gerardus Mercator, Gall-Peters, Medieval Christian, and Islamic maps all portrayed the world in a different way as they attempted to convert the spherical 3-D Earth into a 2-D map according to their interests. The Mercator map won out (or least is the most common one) yet its distortions are well known (e.g. North America and Greenland look larger than Africa). Mercator was interested in drawing a map that would be useful for seafaring.

Today we have Google Maps, the most popular app in the world.  While Google claims to be objective, any act of creation must come from a beginning set of values, biases, interests, subjectivity, cultural assumptions, and in short, a particular point-of-view.  Wan quotes Jerry Brotton, the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps:

“Mapmakers have always claimed objectivity,” he says, “and cartographers always imagine they’re creating maps from some omniscient Godlike position. When it comes to Google Maps, however, the reality is that they’re being produced on the west coast of America.”

 What is created will (mis)inform our worldview at some point.  This can be mitigated by understanding the limitations we bring to the project.

Resources of the Day:

34GB of downloadable, chocolately goodness.  Maps are distributed under the Creative Commons License and the OpenStreetMap License.

NYPL MapWarper
MapWarper is a tool for digitally aligning historical maps with today’s maps. KML files included.