The New Cartographers -- In These Times

The New Cartographers -- In These Times

What does it mean to map everything all the time?

By Jessica Clark

Maps are everywhere these days. The ubiquity of global positioning systems (GPS) and mobile directional devices, interactive mapping tools and social networks is feeding a mapping boom. Amateur geographers are assigning coordinates to everything they can get their hands on—and many things they can’t. “Locative artists” are attaching virtual installations to specific locales, generating imaginary landscapes brought vividly to life in William Gibson’s latest novel, Spook Country. Indeed, proponents of “augmented reality” suggest that soon our current reality will be one of many “layers” of information available to us as we stroll down the street.

Google builds it, people come
Google Earth is the crown prince of the search engine’s mapping realm. The downloadable, interactive globe combines the thrill of a first-time flyer—Look, Mom, the people look like ants!—with a near-superhuman sense of control and mobility. With a click you can stand the Earth on its head and shake change out of its pockets. Selecting Google Earth icons can lead you to everything from offbeat video clips to the all-important location of the nearest Starbucks. As the Google Sightseeing blog puts it: “Why Bother Seeing the World for Real?”

Complex networks
Similar popularity contests are commonly available on personal social network sites like Facebook. Users can map themselves among networks of friends, assessing, at a glance who is the most connected. In the parlance of social network analysis, this cluster of connections is our “ego network”—a fitting term for the personalized mapping environment.

In many ways, these mapping tools are re-locating us as the center of our personal universes. We no longer go to maps to find out where we are. Instead, we tell maps where we are and they form around us on the fly, a sensation that can be comforting or stifling. After all, while finding the right map can orient you, having dozens can threaten to tip the signal-to-noise ratio toward cacophony.

On balance, though, the democratization of mapping and visualization tools generates possibilities for self-expression and social action. Two decades ago, postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson argued that developing new maps would be central for activists hoping to grapple with the emerging global business and communication systems. “[The] incapacity to map socially is as crippling to political experience as the analogous incapacity to map spatially is for urban experience,” he wrote.

The tools are now available. The question now: Where do we go from here?


  1. Hey Ben,

    this was released today:

    Best regards

  2. Christoph --

    Thanks! I appreciate your fwd'ing this to me.



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