Geography 970

January 27, 2010

A Limited Form of Democracy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Daniel Huffman @ 5:46 am

It seems to me that a lot of people like to refer to a recent “democratization of cartography.” While I do not dispute that cartography has changed quite significantly in the past fifteen years, I wonder if we need to think more about what that phrase means, and it if is really particularly accurate.

First off would be: what do we mean by cartography? If we’re talking fancy-pants academic study of maps, then I’m not so sure that this side of the business has been particularly opened to the masses. The people who talk at much length about new symbolization and production techniques are still the map geeks and academics.

So perhaps we are talking instead about the democratization of making maps (and I have no problem with applying the label “cartography” to that practice, but I thought I would clarify my meaning for anyone in the “cartography vs making maps” crowd). But people have always made their own maps, sometimes with nothing more than a stick and a line in the dirt. They have not always been great maps, or even always very effective ones, but the task has traditionally been open to anyone. I wonder if we are missing something by boiling down the ongoing digital revolution into something as simple as “maps used to come from the government and road atlas corporations, and now anyone can make one.” I have no data on to what extent Americans encountered “non-professional” maps in their everyday lives in the 1970s, but I would bet it is not insignificant. Maps of their neighborhoods, their parks, routes to friends’ houses, etc. Call it a “folk cartography,” if you will. When I was in middle school the map of my apartment complex was hand drawn, and the version of reality depicted on that map was not produced by a big corporation or government agency, but by the people who lived and experienced it. Efforts like these were confined to basic reference mapping of local areas, I expect, but they form their own valid body of cartography, and it is one that people encountered regularly. Not only did big corporations and governments make maps some decades ago, but so did everyday people.

So, what is new today? It seems to me a few things: 1) The technology barriers have been lowered, so that it doesn’t take years of training to handle the tools to make a professional-level map; 2) The web allows maps to be distributed widely at low cost; 3) Lots of data are available for free. So, now a college student can go and make a map of climates in Iran in an afternoon, which is something that only a paid professional could have done thirty years ago. Certainly, this is a major change, and I do not mean to discount any of it.

But I wonder if things have changed less than we might think. Who is really making all these fancy new democratic maps? It’s people with access to computers and the knowledge to use them. It’s people with enough leisure time to devote to tinkering with Google Maps mash-ups. The people who can afford a digital camera and have the time to geo-tag their photos after uploading them to Flickr. It is not the person working two jobs and raising a child, or the homeless person who experiences geographies that you and I rarely consider. It is true, many more people are making maps today, but it is no democracy, or if it is, the franchise is limited to those of sufficient property. Universal suffrage is wanting. In fact, it probably was forty years ago. The volunteer who painted a map of local parks that sits in the town square had to have the time and resources to devote to such an effort. All in all, though, the entry barrier to this folk cartography was once pretty low — rudimentary drawing supplies cost very little.

The transition to computers, however, has pulled some people away from pencil-and-paper mapping. Those who can meet the cost of entry have a chance to get closer to what paid professional cartographers do (or even exceed the quality of their work). The term “democratization” suggests we have extended cartography to the masses; my impression is that, in reality, a select group of the masses have simply found a way to move up to somewhere near the level of the elite professionals. In some ways, cartography may well have gotten less democratic. Once we had professionals and non-professionals. But the wealthier elements of the non-professional group have split off and moved closer to the professionals, increasing stratification.

I wonder if we are not, as academics, too willing to put ourselves in the role of “fighting the elite from inside the system” and cheering for our brethren, the “common people,” who are in all likelihood unaware that they are in the middle of a democratic revolution that we have been so kind as to proclaim on their behalf. There is indeed a process of change going on; more people can make better maps of more data sets than ever before. But we have a good long ways to go before the revolution is complete. We are caught at a sort of awkward stage, it seems to me — not everyone can yet take advantage of the opportunities are increasingly being put out there for them. I think, though, that we could be at this awkward stage for a rather long time.

Back to where I started: “democratization of cartography.” The term is a vague as to whether or not it is an ongoing or completed process. I am not sure I have a suitable replacement, however, which conveys the sense of what I have been trying to get across.

Apologies for the rambling, and the overly polemical nature of this whole post. I just had an idea and ran with it, and I recognize that it’s not 100% thought through (and, of course, I base it on no research whatsoever, having not yet read even Mr. Wood’s Cartography is Dead, Thank God). But it was interesting (to me at least) to think about. I suppose I just don’t know how all of it fits together yet, how what we are talking about now relates to what people are really doing, and what they have been doing for a very long time.



  1. Daniel – I really like your ideas here and think these are very strong points. I agree that every new technology is always oversold as “the great hope” for finally leveling the playing field, encouraging social justice et al. I heard that to get support for the Landsat series in the late 60s / early 70s, NASA was way over-promising how it was going to change everyone’s life and be the best thing ever. Naturally folks were really disappointed when they realized that you can’t answer many questions with 100m pixels obscured by clouds. Same deal with ArcGIS being sold to every developing nation in the 1980s as if the only thing keeping them from becoming a stable, Jeffersonian democracy was GIS.

    However, I’d challenge you to make a distinction between ‘making maps professionally’ and ‘using maps in your everyday life to solve problems’. Unlike all of these previous technology lovefests, online mapping and web-technology is *directly* finding a way into millions of peoples lives who now use maps for all sorts of things no one every did before (like finding cheaper apartments, or avoiding traffic). I would argue, strongly, that the 500+ million downloads of Google Earth (which is just one example) really is something new and potentially quite positive – and isn’t merely replacing the hand-drawn maps in your apartment complex (it hasn’t actually)…it’s offering a entirely new set of tools and ways for people to talk *directly* to each other without needing a ‘professional cartographer’ to intermediate for them.

    Bottom line: For me the term “democratization of cartography” refers to the change from (1) $$$, (2) hard-to-use, (3) closed tools like Arc and Mappublisher to (4) free, (5), easy-to-use, (6) open tools that allow anyone with a laptop and internet connection to do stuff that previously only funded professional could do. It doesn’t refer to “folks have never been able to make maps until they have Google Earth…thank goodness we finally killed paper and pen”

    NOTE how I side-stepped the messy issue “is using Google Earth/Maps really ‘making a map’ or turn anyone into a ‘cartographer’?” LOL

    Comment by markharrower — February 5, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  2. Aha, a comment. After an extended silence, I didn’t think I would ever get one of those =).

    You make a fair point re: making maps vs. using them. The extent to which people’s everyday lives are making use of maps and being influenced by them has certainly risen.

    Mostly, I just am wary of people on our ivory tower end tidying things up too much with the notion of “democratization,” without thinking about who we are leaving behind on our march to a brave new world. The term is just so laden with positive values that it makes it too easy to pat ourselves on the back when the job is so far from finished, and jury is still out on whether or not all of it was even a good idea (such as Tim’s discussion of bad mashups). But, you are right, there is a sticky issue of who is making maps now and where does that leave the “cartography” vis a vis those people.

    Comment by Daniel Huffman — February 7, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

  3. […] touted geoweb revolution is still confined to the iPhone-toting wealthy western elite — click here for more of my thoughts on this). All of this is, to my mind, good stuff. But, right now, the tools […]

    Pingback by A War without Humans « Cartastrophe — March 22, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

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