Maps vs. geospatial applications

By David

A History of the World in Twelve Maps is a tour de force if you are interested in maps. The final chapter, Information: Google Earth, 2012, is a highlight for me where Jerry Brotton writes about map making in the information age and the effects of Google on cartography. What I find interesting is the distinction between what we generally conceive a map to be vs. a geospatial application, as Google refers to Google Earth and Google Maps.

At the centre of Googlenomics are the company’s geospatial applications. As Adwords allows companies to target their advertisements more effectively, so Goolge Earth and Maps locate their product in both physical and virtual space.

He quotes from a Michael T. Jones lecture titled The new meaning of maps [PDF] where Jones defines the online map as a ‘place of business’, an ‘application platform’ where businesses trade ‘actionable information’. The alarmists are reminded that this is nothing new:

Google Earth is part of a long and distinguished cartographic tradition of mapping geography onto commerce …

But in terms of mapmaking, geospatial applications represent an important difference with what has gone before:

…for the first time in recorded history, a world view is being constructed according to information which is not publicly and freely available. All prior methods of mapmaking ultimately disclosed their techniques and sources…

Google Maps API allows users to reproduce Google’s maps, but not to understand its code; and like Adwords, by tracking the circulation of its maps, Google can simply extend its database on user’s tastes and habits.

Brutton writes that as the monopolisation of information continues, we, the information sources, may not be sufficiently motivated or organised to resist it. We are unable to see where the new maps, or geospatial applications, are taking us.

We are on the brink of a new geography, but it is one that risks being driven as never before by a single imperative: the accumulation of financial profit through the monopolization of quantifiable information.