Monday, November 15, 2010

The Agency of Mapping: Acts of War

This dispatch comes from our Latin American correspondent Don Roman de la Mancha somewhat belatedly.  Translating his missives can take a while because, while FASLANYC is a bilingual operation, no one here speaks the other’s language.  As such, DRDLM’s dispatch had to be painstakingly exhumed, translated, edited, and posted; an arduous task given that he tends to use antiquated literary prose to express the most basic landscape concepts.  Nonetheless, we now present you with his ragged report.

Once upon a time James Corner penned a nice little exhortation to make more maps (and then proceeded to beat the entire landscape department at UPENN about the head and face until they became a pseudo-scientific, mildly speculative cartography school).  What Corner manages to do in a mere 11,000 words is make a compelling case that mapping is a creative act.  By making decisions, conscious or not, about what to include, emphasize, or relate to other various aspects of the map, the act of mapping itself is a cultural project, a way of intervening in the landscape.
[the territory in dispute, as formerly rendered by Google maps]

Apropos of this notion, recently there was a development in Central America that speaks specifically to the agency of mapping.  Evidently, Google got hold of some old data from the U.S. State Department and haphazardly drew in a small piece of the Honduras-Costa Rica border incorrectly, prompting the Nicaraguan army to casually stroll into defenseless Costa Rica and plant the ol’ blue and white on this piece of Caribbean coast.

The result was a nasty little dust up that resulted, ultimately, in the Nicaraguan official blaming Google.  He claimed that the reason he thought that piece of Costa Rica was actually Nicaragua and promptly rushed a regiment in there was because it showed up in Google maps as such.  Now that’s agency.  But this got us thinking about something interesting that we noticed over on bldgblog just a few weeks ago:  trap streets.  In bldgblog’s words, trap streets are “deliberate cartographic errors introduced into a map so as to catch acts of copyright infringement by rival firms.”  What if this border dispute was the result of a “trap border”, a deliberate cartographic error introduced to induce an aggressor nation in to attacking a rival?
[Is this Costa Rica or Nicaragua?  Let's ask Google.]

While bldgblog spirals the notion of trap streets inward, speculating on how trap rooms create a psychological thrill-world mediated and navigated by use of an iphone, I am especially intrigued to consider the geo-political implications of trap “geographical entities”.  What if hackers working for the Argentine government move the border in Google maps to incorporate small slices of Uruguay where they have been trying to build their paper factories for years?  “Look, Google says that land is Argentine, so back off.”  On a scale closer to home, perhaps corporations in Texas can pay Google a bit extra to have their factory annexed by Mexico for tax season, or politicians can gerrymander their own districts using “my maps” without having to wait for a sympathetic governor to be elected.

At any rate, the agency of mapping as a critical, creative, and political act is undeniable, as is its propensity to be used and abused for nefarious purposes and as a means for consolidating or subverting power.  Given such a dim future, I for one turn an optimistic eye towards that most enviable, venerable of all mapping traditions:  the treasure map.  Using the agency of maps as a means to power is certainly a venerable tradition, but I prefer to believe the methodology was not created by surveyors of the Medici family, but rather as means for pirates young and old to recall where they put their buried treasure.  Power is one aspect of the agency of mapping, but another aspect?  Exploration, fun, and adventure.  The pirates of the Caribbean.

[treasure maps are awesome]

Google changed the map.

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