Geography 970

February 8, 2010

“The map is a silent arbiter of power.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jing Gao @ 9:52 am

When presented with a map, I instinctively look for the story, the point, and the validness of the data and the method.  The story behind Geocoded Art seemed a bit loose until I zoomed out to look at the entire North America:

This reminded me of a conversation with a friend in art history.  She told me when the settlers first came to America, many landscape portraits were made, and they greatly influenced the public’s definition of nature on this continent.  But making arts was a privilege of the elite, and only limited parts of the nation were explored.  As a result, a small group of people’s idea about what should be considered nature in some bonded regions became the public’s general idea of what is nature.  Later, when environmental conservation receives more and more awareness, the scenery portrayed in early artwork gains much more attention and resources than other equally natural landscapes, which sometimes can be completely overlooked.

Cartographers had the halo of authority as well.  Here is an interesting read about Cartography and power, from UW-Milwaukee’s Anthropology Professor William Washabaugh’s website.  “The power of the map make was not generally exercised over individual but over the knowledge of the world made available to people in general.  Yet this is not consciously done and it transcends the simple categories of ‘intended’ and ‘unintended’ altogether.”(J.B. Harley, 2001, The New Nature of Maps.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, page 166)  The training of Cartographers teaches us to convey ‘intended’ information, objectively and scientifically.  But what are some of the “unintended” influence of our professional ancestors?  What is our group bias?  Things like the linkage between landscape portraits and environmental conservation.

Also, while the technology quickly gives more and more people, almost everybody, accessibility to map making, people’s tendency/habit of taking maps with much trust and little critique may have not changed (yet).  So, the greatly diverse information from everybody is being taken as knowledge.  Cartographic training used to serve as the qualification control of what should be considered knowledge.  What is the qualification filter now?  What does this mean to Cartographers, since the halo may have gone?



  1. Technology and power have been intertwined for centuries (if not since the dawn of civilization). It’s not always a one-sided affair, though, with the minions of governments, upper-classes, and the privileged that have the upper hand. Photography during the depression is a poignant example. The photographer Dorothea Lange took many touching photos of migrant laborers in California.

    You can see the photos on a google mashup:

    This website also shows ‘then & now’ photographs of many of the locations:

    Comment by mattmoehr — February 8, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  2. agreed. when i was writing that post, i was definitely thinking of the pairs of affordable digital camera vs. “traditional” fine arts, affordable dv vs. “traditional” film making, and Web2.0 online mapping services vs. “traditional” cartography. there are lots of similarities among the three pairs. one of them is that the former of the pair calls out changes, shifts, debates and introspection of the later. It would be great to see some influential cartographic work coming out of the not-always-well-articulated communities, works like the film “Trouble the Water” ( ), because they get stories to tell.

    Comment by Jing Gao — February 9, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

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