The past and future of map-making

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First aired on Spark (7/12/12)

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The first documented map dates back to 750 BCE. In the centuries that followed, cultures were just starting to figure out triangulation, how to use the stars and how to represent the world in just two dimensions. The results were often stunning -- you could think of them as the high resolution displays of antiquity. Jerry Brotton, who teaches Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, is the author of The History of the World in Twelve Maps

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"The book is about how we really need to be careful about the ways in which mapping maps us," Brotton said to Spark host Nora Young. Recent study has focused on maps as "ideological, propagandistic objects." Though Brotton acknowledged that they're always subject to being appropriated by politics, he went on to say, "but I think now we have to get over that and say any map is always an argument, a proposition about what the world looks like....And we know that any map is always partial. A map can never properly represent the territory it claims to show you. It always has to make selections about what it puts on the map and what it leaves off the map."

One of the maps Brotton discusses is the Book of Roger, a Norman king who ruled Sicily in the 12th century. It consists of a series of regional maps that, stitched together, present an image of the world as it was known then. "It's a map which is about different cultures melding together," Brotton explained. "An Islamic mapmaker fuses Greek, Roman, Latin traditions for a Christian king and creates this world picture which is sort of fusing all these different religious and cultural traditions. Judaism as well is in there in the mix." 

When asked how maps figured in European imperialism, Brotton said that maps were needed when people were striking out for unknown territory. Before the 15th century, people learned through inherited oral tradition and knowledge, but they were travelling within the boundaries of the known world. "But once the Portuguese and the Spanish start sailing way out into the West, then they need new kinds of technologies, which work out, through looking at the stars, how you can construct a map which enables you to get beyond the horizon and back," Brotton said. As a result, mapping takes a "massive leap forward and you get this huge rush of both local and global maps."

The Renaissance period, which is his specialty, was a revolutionary moment for map-making. "I started writing this book because I realized that we're going through an equally profound moment in mapping," Brotton said. "In the15th century, when the invention of the printing press transforms the map from something which is a manuscript into a printed object, that's a huge change." Companies like Google and Apple call their maps a "geo-spatial application." And they are "trying to transcend the way in which the map is something that creates a geometrical, and quite abstract, image of the world."

The most revolutionary aspect is that the online map shows the passage of time. "You can video-stream so it's melding space and time, and maps have never been able to do that before. So I think it is a huge, huge transformation," Brotton said. It's also the product of users, who have "this extraordinary liberation to create their own maps, and even feed their own maps in."

That doesn't mean that the new digital map-making is free from ideological bias. Apple and Google both use the term "monetize" in relation to the mapping applications. "It's a construction that is really driven by location and search. This is a huge, huge industry," Brotton said, adding that it's still necessary to ask what the map celebrates and what it marginalizes. Despite the claim that the maps are photo-real, Brotton said, "no map is absolutely objective."





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