Technology and the story of mapping

We carry maps around with us every day in our pockets, and of course these maps on our smartphones and laptops make use of technology in a very immediate way. However, for thousands of years technology and mapping have gone hand-in-hand in ways which may be less obvious to us, as Alex Manby describes.

Map-making, known as ‘cartography’, may not be the first thing to spring to mind when you think about technology. Yet, if technology is the ‘application of scientific knowledge to the change and manipulation of the human environment’ (as the Encyclopaedia Britannica would have us believe), then mapping, with its focus on communicating the latest scientific and geographic knowledge about the world around us, certainly fits the bill. As early as 150 CE, before the age of satellites and GPS, Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy used the latest mathematical knowledge to produce a map of the known Greco-Roman world. Though Ptolemy’s map had a few inaccuracies, he was able to successfully plot the course of the River Nile and correctly estimated the circumference of the globe to within a few thousand metres.

Geographers have long maintained, however, that maps don’t just represent the world around us, but also shape how we experience it. Second century sailors using Ptolemy’s map, for example, would have found it to be of limited use for navigating further south than the Sahara Desert. Similarly, the map’s focus on the area around the Mediterranean reflected the fact that Ptolemy viewed the Roman Empire as at the centre of the world.

Maps have changed a lot since Ptolemy’s day. During the Renaissance, cartographers took advantage of advances in printing technology to cheaply mass produce and disseminate new maps around the world. Cartography also played a key role in the processes of colonisation. Maps of the Americas, for example, showed much of the so-called ‘New World’ as empty space, erasing the evidence of indigenous communities to justify European occupation. Furthermore, maps also helped colonial officials govern foreign lands by marking out the location of valuable resources, territory, and people.

Computing technologies have further transformed the practice of mapping through effectively automating processes of spatial data capture, storage, and processing. GPS and satellite imagery, for example, allow cartographers to pin-point the exact location of objects with ever more precision. These maps are increasingly engaging, incorporating the use of sounds, text, images, and even smells to make the experience of using a map multi-sensory. Furthermore, rather than flattening the earth, map projections are often three-dimensional, allowing users to immerse themselves in the places they are navigating and blurring the boundaries between the digital and analogue worlds.

Sites such as GoogleMaps have also transformed map-mapping from an elite, specialist occupation to a widely accessible and participatory process. Gone are the days of the Ptolemy’s painstaking mathematical calculations. Instead, users can make their own maps with just a few clicks, choosing which places are depicted, the scale and resolution, and which layers of ‘additional’ information are shown, from cultural sites, to retail parks. As a result, researchers have argued that a map should no longer be thought of as a static finished product, but as a constantly changing visual tool which can be adapted for a wide range of purposes.

Finally, so-called ‘location aware’ mobile devices such as smartphones, watches, and tablets now allow individuals to generate maps which reflect their own movements, for example to capture exercise routes or daily commutes. Similarly, location-based games, like Pokémon GO, are shaping the ways in which users navigate their local area, with ‘PokéStops’ even becoming popular tourist attractions. Looking ahead, many predict that future developments in mapping lie in a combination of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Technologies such as self-driving cars rely on extremely detailed 3D ‘living maps’, which must be updated in real time to reflect changing real world conditions.

These changes in mapping technologies should not necessarily be understood as a story of straightforward progress. Instead, researchers have questioned whether ever more detailed maps are necessarily ‘better’ at performing their primary function: communicating information about a place. Though digital tools have made mapping more readily available, they also raise new questions about who has the power to control mapping platforms, which are increasingly owned by a small number of large tech companies. Furthermore, high resolution maps can be used for more sinister purposes, including military and terrorist activities, raising questions about personal privacy and data protection. Finally, these changes have also led to growing inequalities in the quality of maps, both between rural and urban areas, and the Global North and Global South. These differences are important; a lack of detailed maps can make it difficult to provide services to isolated areas, or for indigenous communities to demonstrate their claims to territory.

Alex Manby is a PhD student at St John’s College studying Human Geography


One of the ways in which technology has changed mapping has been to make it ever more accessible over time, so that almost anyone can now make their own map about almost anything. In April 2020, CityLab asked their readers to make their own maps of their lives during the coronavirus pandemic. Watch this video about the project, and then look at some of these maps in more detail .

Using the CityLab maps as examples, make your own map which describes your experience of the coronavirus pandemic. The map can be as creative as you’d like, using any materials you have available, and can be made either by hand or using a computer. You might like to show how the pandemic changed your daily routine, or the sights, sounds and smells you experienced during the lockdown. The map can be focused on any scale, from your home, your local area, a whole town/city, or even the entire UK.

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