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The Art of Maps and the influence of technology: do electronic maps democratise?

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Last night I attended a talk entitled ‘The Art of Maps’ held at the British Library as part of the ‘Magnificent Maps. Power Propaganda and Art’ exhibition.  I went along mainly because I really like maps (geeky I know) and was interested in understanding more about the relationship between cartography and art and the interplay between the two.

The talk featured two of the artists whose work is on display in the exhibition, Grayson Perry and Stephen Walter, and focused on the imaginary, abstract and autobiographical maps created by each. The talk itself was very interesting, particularly Grayson Perry whose down to earth wit and wisdom combined with his wry commentary on the art world made for a truly engaging session. If you get a chance to see him speak – go!

But whilst this session did not specifically focus on maps in the broader sense or indeed how maps are changing as a consequence of technology, the discussion did start me thinking.

For me there’s something very special about the way in which old fashioned maps, and by this I mean maps drawn by people, seek to transform the physical world and all its spaces and places, into an accurate graphical reproduction of that world. In this sense maps constitute a virtual world of sorts; indeed they represent probably the first or earliest form of a visual virtual world.

And it is precisely because maps are a representation of the real world but are not ‘real’ that I find using them to navigate successfully from point A to point B in the real world so satisfying.  Sat Nav just isn’t the same.

I’m also deeply in awe of the physical process of capturing complex topographical data and representing this graphically in a meaningful, accurate and in a highly useable format.  For me maps represent one of the oldest and most successful forms of data visualisation – a topic close to my heart!

But as more and more maps are designed, developed and accessed digitally they no longer constitute a virtual representation or approximation of the real or physical world.  Google Earth and Google Street View show us the real world, not a drawing of it.

The closing statement by the chair highlighted that the aim of the overall map exhibition is to make visitors continually ask themselves two important questions as they view each map: 1), who created the map? and; 2), what for?  And whilst these questions hold considerable weight when reviewing the historical maps do they mean so much when considering Google Maps or Google Street View? Google shows us the real world doesn’t it?  So can these maps be skewed or biased as they once were for reasons of power and propaganda?

Well possibly yes:  Google may still have an aim and an agenda and although this may not be to distort our view of the world perhaps it’s fair to say that instead their power is obtained by providing us with access to it.

Lastly, as open source initiatives such as OpenStreetMap which aim to create maps through public collaboration, are developed what effect will this have on the power and politics of maps? For me these initiatives serve to illustrate yet again, the potentially democratising influence of technology and the Internet.

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On 12th May 2010
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