Avoiding the “Update”: Thinking-Through Tele-visual Cartography

Posted in 2010 Journal


This essay offers a critical evaluation of screened cartographic propositions. As “western” culture progressively embraces technological innovation (through an incessant series of “updates”), it has begun to more easily assume the objectivity of televisable, scientific data. In particular, this constant cultural imperative to keep “up-to-date” has complemented the growing trend of mapping one’s place through a series of clashing data subsets – a literally faceless (and seemingly dis-interested) orientation of oneself. By using examples such as Global Positioning Systems, weather maps, and election maps, this essay attempts to invoke a deconstruction of these significant new (and incredibly popular) ways of creating spatial narratives. Political boundaries, claims of property, and attempts to manage resources are all drawn from a particular viewpoint saturated within a cultural context, and to pretend that the map can be anymore authoritative by assuming a computational and faceless view-from-nowhere fails to contribute to the necessarily interactive project of a cartography primarily predicated on negotiation and conversation. As I argue here, accurate mapping requires the recognition of the subjectivity of the cartographer and the spaces/places being mapped. I also briefly discuss the importance of historical scholarship orienting itself within its respective spatial contexts so that it can more adequately converse with the “then” of past cartographic propositions. Only by embracing such contexts and, thereby, acknowledging the subjective positions from which they invoke the past can historians honestly approach the object of their discipline.

Information is the most effective mechanism for the derealization of history.
(Baudrillard 117)

In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place – yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do – yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. (Shaffer 108)


The past few decades have brought with them a fortunate convolution within the disciplines of geography and cartographic history. The study of history has been recently challenged to undergo a “spatial turn” as the necessary complement to the enterprise of contemporary historicism (Tang 1). A history of mapping, or a record of how past cultures ontologically oriented themselves and others through a kind of spatial narrative seems to demand an evolutionary understanding of perception. After all, the semiotics – or signs – of cartography are created and recreated according to a perceptual analysis and subsequent re-presentation of space in an abstract form so as to impact the map’s social environment through recognition. This recognition of signs is a communal event, requiring the perceptions of at least two individuals to coincide with one another (Bryson 93). Evaluating past cartographies complicates the semiotics within any given map by, as one theorist notes, projecting such signs through time and forcing the historian to interpret them within a context “governed by two historical ‘horizons’, ‘then’ and ‘now’; but the ‘then’ is only known as it arises within the ‘now’, and one must accept this fact – which is simply the fact of living in history” (Bryson 100). If understanding cartographic forms requires historians to grapple with their own contexts in order to draw out meaning from their chosen objects of study, contemporary spatial practices and the narratives they create must be assessed.

Many theorists and historians have traveled this scholastic route, tracing perceptual change (Crary 11-79), the recent commodification of space through means of global “free market” capitalism (Smith 116-117), and the importance of “the gaze” when analyzing cartographic texts (Geography and Vision 15-33), among others. Few, however, have focused primarily on the very recent development of maps as tele-visual experiences. The combination of a growing accessibility and reliability on the internet with the dependence of spatial data on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has manifested itself in extremely complex and digital re-presentations of space which often offer a way of interacting with cartography that seems radically different from earlier forms of spatial expression, such as: interactive weather maps, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), on-demand internet mapping, and historical GIS. By building upon the already established scholarship surrounding some of these issues, this essay will attempt to explore the tele-visual elements of today’s cartographic narratives in order to more appropriately evaluate the maps of the past. It is imperative that historians begin to orient themselves within their spatial contexts so that they can more adequately converse with the “then” of past cartographic propositions. Only by embracing such contexts and, thereby, acknowledging the subjective positions (i.e. the “now”) from which they invoke the past can historians honestly approach the object of their discipline (i.e. the “then”).

Two major undercurrents of this essay are the growing prominence of the screen and the concept of the update. The current combination of these two phenomena has successfully created a totalized world-picture which simultaneously attempts to market itself as a “true” proposition of space and as an entertaining, easily consumable, and always up-to-date object. Moreover, cartography’s newfound dependence upon the internet and the “information age” for its authority and accuracy has forced the vast majority of map-making to be undertaken within the context of Western, Anglo-American culture. As will be explained at greater length below, one fundamental aspect of spatial narratives derived from this culture is its emphasis and reliance on automation and a progressive, linear understanding of technological development. The constant cultural imperative to keep “up-to-date” has complemented the growing trend of mapping one’s place through a series of clashing data subsets – a literally faceless, and therefore seemingly “objective” and accurate, orientation of oneself.

Predicting the Future? Tele-vision and the Dynamic Drawing of Space

The geographic theorist Gerald Fremlin claims that “map-seeing resembles television-seeing or picture-seeing more than it does text-reading” (4). Regardless of whether or not a map is more “picture” than it is “text”, it projects a vision of space and, in a sense, propositionally asserts itself to an audience (Krygier and Wood 198-199). Indeed, then, it constructs a narrative of representation which confronts the viewer and forces her to negotiate how she perceives the world with its substance and form. This constant renegotiation is often conversational: the viewer can alter the map, can draw on it, can discard it, can compare it with other maps, etc. An entire academic enterprise has been erected on the painstaking analysis of paper map drawings, redrawings, authenticity, coloring, ink, etc. (van den Broecke 46-49; Manasek 73-82; Woodward 2-10). Yet little has been done among those researching the history of cartography regarding today’s much more prominent aesthetic framework within which most maps now reside: the screen. This is not to say that an acknowledgement of the screen’s importance has been entirely overlooked. Several geographers interested in animated maps (Campbell and Egbert 24-46) and the potential of GIS for historical scholarship have emphasized new and interesting approaches to cartography predicated on computer processing and the screen as its visual medium of expression (Gregory, Kemp, and Mostem 7-23). But such studies consistently skirt any kind of analysis of the screen itself and its relationship to the viewer as an expressive medium. Fortunately, critical cartographers and theorists have begun to raise questions concerning this issue.

In a brief discussion of televised weather maps, Denis Wood calls such representations “rhetorical”, created to “point back” at the weatherman, “establishing . . . its higher culture, its sophistication . . . and emphasizing his modernity, sophistication, and thus his reliability” (114). The weather map is not seeking to name someplace or assert the power of its author over any particular space. Rather, it (like most, if not all, tele-visual experiences) exists for the sake of being mass-consumed. This consumption is not for the primary purpose of any utility, but instead – as is the case in societies of “cultural capitalism” – “we consume them in order to render our lives pleasurable and meaningful” (Zizek 52). The weather map is not for the weatherman so much as it is for you and your consumption. Providing you with the experience of “watching the weather”, not actually accurately predicting that weather, is the primary impetus of the weatherman and his team of “forecasters.”

This too is the allure of the screen – a collective experience of cultural mass consumption. Moreover, contemporary television “networks” – communities built upon the screen itself – always stick to what theorist Richard Dienst calls a self-reflexive “strictly pragmatic rule”:

. . . everything put on the air should only stay long enough to exhaust the commercial potential of its particular combination of audience segments, which can never be given fully or accurately in advance. (92)

This seems to not only be an imperative of the television, but also of the screened-map. Isn’t this the driving force behind the concept of the “update” – a newer, faster, more expansive and necessarily better version of what was already functioning? On the night of the 2008 American Presidential election, nearly every major news network debuted several touch-friendly, interactive, high-resolution screens so as to show maps of the ongoing campaigns (Baig and Swartz). Accuracy (as we especially saw in the 2004 Presidential election when all of the major networks had, again, just updated their screens), research and context were all thrown to the wind for the sake of an on-demand, high-def spectacle in which cartographic representations were made available primarily for mass-consumption. This should be no surprise in a political culture with a declining rate of democratic participation, but an undying faith in its own ability to keep an economy afloat through the act of consuming (Rayner 169). A political consumption of spectacular news media is nothing new, but the perceived objectivity of its methods can be considered new. Today our political decisions are largely dependent upon technological justifications for various arguments (Haque 261). Like the weather map, the election map in a newsroom projects cultural prowess and technological advancement. In fact, the choropleth mapping technique itself, the most commonly used maps for electoral explanations, reinforces the idea that populations simply fill in natural political units (“GIS and Geographic Governance” 42) and that an individual’s state or county or precinct voted a particular way. It is no wonder that as the viewer looks at the screen – at a cloudless, clearly labeled earth with unproblematic spatial divisions – and he or she is subjected to its claims of objectivity. As one historian of tele-visual culture has written, the long-term effects of computer use in any given society can create an “adaptation to machine speeds and rhythms. . .” He goes on:

In most cases, using a computer produces a psychic field of expectant attentiveness, within which one inevitably trains oneself . . . [to interact with] an objective world newly decomposed into autonomous and abstract stimuli. (Crary 309)

Perhaps a better example of how tele-visual cartography negates the explicitly subjective might be the in-car GPS (or, Global Positioning System) monitor which both directs the driver and emulates the vehicle’s movement. The GPS forces the driver’s perception into a digital map that can offer both the “God’s eye” view-from-nowhere-that-sees-everything and more detailed cartography of the immediate area around one’s vehicle. In a sense, the in-car GPS monitor attempts to emulate not only movement, but also real-time, real-space, and literal perception. In order to function properly, the monitor must achieve the driver’s perspective so as to offer on-demand directional advice in whatever language or style of voice one might prefer. Indeed, GPS is wholly dependent upon the constant application of its location against the data provided for it by satellite imagery and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). In essence, a conversation of incessant renegotiation is taking place, but it is automatic and faceless. The GPS subsumes the perspective of its consumer in a kind of simulacranic negation – it literally acts in-place of the human subject, only to have its grip on perceptual data shaken off after making a mistake (which may be fixed after the system’s next “update”).

Mark Monmonier, a prominent geographer, once wrote in 1996 that:

As display systems become more flexible, and more like video games, users must be wary that maps, however realistic, are merely representations, vulnerable to bias in both what they show and what they ignore. (183)

Today, our “display systems” have rapidly become a part of our everyday lives- the maps to which they claim the authority to “find your friends”, “find a place to eat”, or any number of other location-based applications/uses downloadable to one’s iPhone, BlackBerry, or other handheld device. As they have gained popularity, the healthy skepticism that once existed toward the reliability of internet mapping has all but been eliminated due to the ability of these software programs to quickly keep pace with changes in real-time, so that their maps are accurate and their directions useful. As one technological systems analyst from the late 1950s so quaintly predicted,

It seems that some basic tasks, common to all cartography, may in the future be largely automated, and that the volume of maps produced in a given time will be increased while the cost is reduced. (Tobler 534)

As the next section of this essay hopes to show, this automation – rather than simply doing menial “basic tasks” in cartography – has radically shifted the West’s cultural conception of space.

Mapping Cyberspace: Tele-visual Cartography in the Information Age

In December of 1972, the snapshot totalization of the earth was achieved. Pictures taken from outer space by NASA astronauts had accomplished in a few short minutes what centuries of cartography and geography could never do: give people a convincing world-as-picture. “The whole Earth, geography’s principal object of study, had been photographed by a human eyewitness” (“Contested Global Visions” 270). Suddenly, the West’s perception of their place in the world drastically changed – the “real” globe could now be mapped by none other than the West’s very own satellites. The lines could be digitally drawn onto real-space with all of the authority photography could muster.

But by the late 1980s and well up through our contemporary day, the diffusion of the internet has led the West into an “information age” in which maps could both be distributed and accessed on a scale never before imagined. Moreover, the proliferation of GIS and mapping software began to result in the creation of “layered” displays which took “data from a variety of databases and [converted] them into visual form” (Staley 122). These maps can have several different datasets being displayed at the same time in order to show particular correlations, make particular arguments, show environmental/climate changes, etc. Nearly all such maps are created on a computer, mediated through a screen, and usually available only in digital forms of reproduction (unless printed out or otherwise published).

Yet access to the screen, let alone the internet or GIS software/data, is abysmally lacking in the vast majority of the world. The United States, for example, has three-hundred times the information connectivity of Sub-Saharan Africa (Political Mapping 149). Moreover, the “layered” nature of GIS datasets seems all too similar to the “layering” of television shows and is open to the same types of criticism. Theodor Adorno, for example, complains:

When we speak of the multilayered structure of television shows, we are thinking of various superimposed layers of different degrees of manifestation or hiddenness that are utilized by mass culture as a technological means of “handling” the audience. (223)

The methods through which digital cartographic representations are created, as well as the displays of such creations, are problematic insofar as they – like any and all maps – have to exclude stuff in order to “handle” a perceived audience. Yet the digital map, a map accessible to anyone with a computer and a decent internet connection, constructs a spatial reality predicated on its own authority as an easily accessible, mass-consumed “object”. The constant negotiation taking place between digital, communal world-maps like “Google Earth” or “MapQuest” and their GIS databases is practically immediate and automated – all drawing is the result of mathematics and geospatial software. As Jeremy Crampton reminds us,

. . . power “over” others is not one of domination where all choices have been drained away, but rather one of management and government in the sense of the correct disposition of things. (Political Mapping 179)

When space – our environment, with all of the ontological consequences held therein – is constructed and reconstructed by a software system focused primarily on providing Western culture with a consumable product, when it is made accessible almost solely by corporations (like Google or Microsoft or the Environment Systems Research Institute), and when we rely on the digitized perspective of GPS to guide us through it, the ability – or “power” – to authoritatively create our own places in space is seriously diminished. They can more “accurately” draw your place than you can. For instance, should one live outside the Northern hemisphere, chances are that there exists no possibility of one’s spatial representation competing with one drawn by a North American using GIS. Historians too have hopped onto the GIS bandwagon, claiming not just to have found an interesting tool with which to complement their narratives, but also an avenue toward capital-T truth concerning the places and spaces of the past (Owens 2014-2040; Knowles; Hillier and Knowles). Spatial environments – mediated through data collection, software, and screens – seem to provide a faux sense of scientism and authority to consumers, perhaps because it is harder to alter or disprove them or question that authority. At the end of the day, the conversational approach to cartography is abandoned in favor of stark propositional, digitized narratives primarily built so as to exist first and foremost as disinterested consumable goods.

Conclusion: Toward the Interactive

“Interaction” has become a catch-all technological term, denoting not only general conversational activities between human beings and their machines but also a more intimate tactile relationship between human beings and their screens. As cartography becomes ever-more tele-visual and its information ever more accessible, this inter-activity will likely be undertaken by Western culture at a steadily increasing rate. Studying spatial narratives requires scholars interested in its forms and representations to remain keenly aware of such changes and how they affect our view of our respective places. When addressing issues of un-digitized cartographic development, Mark Monmonier writes:

. To be adequately informed, the map user must be at least vaguely aware of how cartographic bureaucracies work, what they value, and how values and biases affect their products. (138)

The vast majority of historians, geographers, and theorists interested in maps understand the importance of context when evaluating those maps of the past. As noted earlier in this essay, the context of the past is not the only area worth focusing on if we are to study such objects in the “now”. As complex as GIS and GPS technology, computer software, and satellite imagery might be, they are all vital to the representations of today’s places and spaces. Moreover, screened mediation between the user and geospatial data has now become the most predominant medium through which to map one’s environment. As critical theorists have done with the computer and the television, academics concerned with space cannot afford to overlook the problems, biases, and values projected into collectively mass-consumed screened-cartographies.

This essay does not claim to be definitive, nor does it seek to offer easy answers to geospatial concerns. Rather, it has attempted to problematize what has been culturally accepted as naturally better, useful, complementary, or progressive. Problems of mediation, understanding, ontological orientation, and technology should be carefully considered. Unfortunately, rarely does the contemporary historian, theorist, or geographer have the ability to freeze time – to stop technological “updates” from rendering critical readings of its manifestations obsolete. Thus, as in Huxley’s Brave New World, we run the risk of laughing without knowing what we are laughing about and forgetting why no one is thinking about it (Postman 163). Fortunately, this is exactly when criticism becomes most adamant. As Walter Benjamin so astutely noted, “Only for the sake of the hopeless is hope given to us.” (Marcuse 257). Such an attitude is needed to understand ways in which we orient our contemporary environment – a thinking-through that is necessary if we are to open up new avenues in the study of cartographic history and the “interactions” with past spaces such study entails.

However, regardless of such study, if maps are representations of space through subjective propositions, then the reduction of such orientations to consumable screened products seems antithetical to the cartographic enterprise. If political boundaries, claims of property, and attempts to manage resources are all drawn from a particular cultural viewpoint, then pretending that the map can be anymore authoritative by assuming a computational and faceless view-from-nowhere fails to contribute to the necessarily interactive project of a cartography primarily predicated on negotiation and conversation. As maps became more and more tele-visual, their authority becomes more and more solidified through the exclusion of those individuals and cultures who cannot or do not wish to map through tele-visual mediums. As the instruments of cartographic mediation, such as in-vehicle GPS systems, become more prominent, the importance of one’s interaction with the produced map is eclipsed by the importance of the map to assume an accurate understanding of its consumer’s place – to very literally assume a perception in real-time and real-space only possible through constant updates. Yet, as I have argued above, “updates” assume a linear technological progression created by a particular set of cultural values. Furthermore, maps properly understood – as propositions meant to be interacted with – cannot be primarily dis-interested objects of market consumption, as they necessarily are when projected onto a weatherman or news anchor’s screen. Accurate mapping requires the recognition of the subjectivity of the cartographer and the spaces/places being mapped. By searching for accuracy and objectivity through screened spectacles of clashing computations, context is purposefully forgotten – only raising its ugly head when real-space refuses to properly align with mapped-space. Only through embracing such moments of difference, by avoiding the suggested and sometimes required update, can we begin to think through what we are consistently told is imperative to erase: namely, the need to interact with space at all.


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