Critical Cartography

This week’s lecture and discussion on popular and critical methods of cartography drew out, for me, some of the more concrete impressions of striated and smooth¬†spaces discussed in the introductory lecture of this module (Social Media Campaigning). Whereas striation implies linear, circumscribed spaces and a tendency here towards restriction, a conception of smooth spaces tends towards a greater sense of freedom in potential; both in terms of interpretation and interaction.

Writing in the introductory chapter to A Thousand Plateaus (PDF), Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari elaborate on a contrast between the activities of tracing and mapping, with one interpretation taking a point of criticism here towards the logic behind tracing and reproduction in thought, expression or activity. An alternative notion to tracing, presented in this text, is mapping:

“What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward
an experimentation in contact with the real.”

-Deleuze & Guattari; A Thousand Plateaus

Perhaps we can say that Google’s dominant mapping service is more a kind of tracing – a certain series of related presentations of the world it intends to map (the roads, properties, car routes and borders). This is not to say that Google’s map – perhaps the new foundation of the corporation’s enterprise – is not a representation of reality, but to say that this particular representation carries with it certain conditions placed upon an understanding or functional interpretation of the real - overtaking, challenging and denying a sense of alternative.

Critical cartography appears to present a body of thought and practice often geared towards the alternative; a more multitudinous approach to mapping founded on creative interpretation and, often, interactivity. When it comes to the tools of social media and campaigning, Web 2.0 affords possibilities in interactivity in mapping such as collaborative map-making at the heart of projects like Open Street Map and some of the more radical forms of mapping explored by the likes of Denis Wood.

Recounting community efforts in the 1980s to map particular realities of some neighborhoods, Wood states: “…we also wanted to use the mapping as a kind of organizational tool, as a way of bringing the neighborhood together and helping it to see itself.”¬†This initiative is at the heart of open-source, online collaborative mapping initiatives, which often aspire to multitudinous modes of thought.

One example of such an initiative which interested me recently is OpenCorporates’ attempts to map complex networks of multinational corporations. These maps show where certain business elements are domiciled, highlighting connections including aspects such as the potential, legal channels of tax avoidance.

(Open Data Platform Shows Complex Corporate Structures of Banks)

Another teacher of mine, Graham Harwood [YoHa] has often pointed out that an important consideration in evaluating databases is not just in taking note of what content or classifications are included within a database, but what, as a result of this, has been omitted. I believe the same is true of mapping, where a tracing may propose a certain vantage on the real, but in-so-doing, include blind spots on other unseen elements (Dronestagram, for example, draws attention to killings by drone strikes that are otherwise discluded from the vantage of the real presented by other forms of terrain mapping which may focus on other elements, such as car routes and properties).


Update: I stumbled across this version of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, written solely as instructions for Google Maps.

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