In Response to Farman

Borges map quote

Quoted from Jorge Luis Borges

A map is only useful as a representation, which necessarily involves a distortion of reality. Google Earth threatens this idea by purporting to represent reality with a new degree of accuracy and comprehensiveness, and yet we cannot escape the old problems. Instead, these problems are magnified through the illusion of objectivity and accuracy which Google Earth promises to deliver.

Issues of supposed interactivity and user-based generated content complicate this issue, but as Farman admits, these tools, allowing for a new degree of freedom, are also controlled and regulated by Google. Not only this, but even the choices made by individuals reflect ideologically and politically-based biases, so even if democratizing the creation of maps eliminates or at least mitigates the centrality of power for the mapmaker, it could never eliminate the inherent subjectivity of mapmaking itself.

Instead, by attempting to create such a map of perfection, Google Earth’s supposed potential for subversion is even more dangerous than the old, less accurate maps. Maps continue to create boundaries, rather than represent them, but with an even greater degree of power and influence due to the illusion of objectivity within Google Earth.

This is a postmodern issue because here the distribution of power is not one-sided (as in a user watching a TV), and neither is the direction reversed (the TV is watching you), but now neither the source of power nor its direction is clear. Agency is no longer known or definite. For Farman, this is a positive thing, but if we wish to continue this postmodern critique (which I believe I have been lifting from Jameson, but I can’t be sure), we could argue that by using technology in order to extend the potential of maps to their absolute limit, Google Earth is even more deceptive than traditional maps. The more a representation resembles its original, the easier the viewer is fooled by its supposed authenticity. Google Earth takes this logic and adds with it the possibility of collaboration and interactivity, thereby ensuring that with this controlled potential for subversion, the user will be even more fooled by its illusion of objectivity. At this point, Foucault’s panopticon no longer bears any relevance, as the source and directionality of agency is lost or obscured, legitimizing Google Earth even further.

This is a pessimistic view of the function of Google Earth, but it fits into the Jameson and Baudrillard postmodern critique to which Farman alludes. Instead, he arrives at a more positive view of the functionality of Google Earth, recognizing its limitations but nonetheless embracing the certain degree of subversion somehow allowed by its creators. While I would like to agree with Farman, who begins to recognize these issues but doesn’t quite see them through, it would be foolish to ignore how easily Google Earth fits into this critique.

20 thoughts on “In Response to Farman

  1. Dan’s post touches on some vital questions related to my own interest in the study of cultural geography (and larger issues in theories of space and place). One of the points I make at the beginning of Chapter 2 of Mobile Interface Theory (see: is, “How we represent space has everything to do with how we embody that space.” Thus, one follow-up question I have for Dan is, “Can we approach your argument from a slightly different approach with the larger understanding that space and its representations are necessarily co-produced (rather than existing as distinct modes of experience as you seem to be gesturing toward)?”

    You correctly note that digital mapmaking “could never eliminate the inherent subjectivity of mapmaking itself.” This is absolutely true and, from my perspective, this is a good thing. To imagine a map that is objective is a greater danger than a wide embrace of the subjectivity of maps. I imagine that once maps are embraced as subjective objects with distinct points of view, then our practices of maps will transform for the better. For me, this is the move from immediacy (immersion through an encounter with an interface that disappears) to hypermediacy (always being aware of the medium, held at the surface). Such a move is often necessary for the hegemonic structures to be exposed, like the intimacy historically held between maps and imperialism.

    Lastly, I think it’s worth pushing on your idea that interactivity makes us more susceptible to the invisible power structures that govern maps (like Google). While this can be true (interactivity is a complicated term that applies to a wide range of practices), I think there are many times when interacting with a map puts you in a position to explore its structure and ramifications in a hands-on way. Interactivity, in certain instances, can give you critical distance on objects like maps and the companies that produce them. For example, to scholars and practitioners like Bertolt Brecht, social change came through engaging people interactively, forcing them to *see* the medium and mediation, and to gain critical distance by pushing on the limits and constraints of these media. He contrasted this interactive audience with a passive one, who engaged the medium as they were told rather than in the ways it could be creatively misused.

    Thank you for the thoughtful post about my article and I look forward to continuing the conversation!

  2. I am attracted to the idea of this move from immediacy to hyperimmediacy, as well as embracing the subjectivity of maps rather than insisting on a false objectivity. However, from your article and my own limited experimenting with Google Earth, I remain skeptical of this tool’s potential for subversion.

    As you note, through Google Earth’s use of satellite and aerial photographs, “this association between machine and product distances maps like Google Earth from a sense of subjectivity and instead emphasizes the objective nature of photographic representations of Earth.” While Google Earth can offer these social networking tools to offset its already established investment in objective representation, these problems will continue to persist. By mapping out the world with an unprecedented degree of accuracy (to use a problematic word), and a scale that apparently exceeds the scope of our world itself, Google Earth encourages an objective rather than subjective view of its maps.

    The introduction of interactive tools and a social network appear to throw a wrench into this argument, but while they complicate Google Earth’s power structure, I also see them as disguising it. If we inspect the social tools themselves, such as the forum or the overlays, we can see that Google’s Earth’s emphasis, rather than on embracing subjectivity, is always on the accumulation of more information, greater resolution, and finally a greater degree of accuracy. Individual users might play a role in supplying this content or debating what works best, but every decision made must reflect these preferences. I do not know how Google Earth manages user feedback and content, but I imagine that the ideal they are striving for is objectivity (the most updated borders between countries, 3D maps of specific neighborhoods, ect.). The reason for this, of course, is that Google Earth would cease to be a useful tool if it became truly “subjective” or allowed its audience too much control.

    To me, this is the danger of Google Earth, and while it is true that by extending its agency out to the public, Google Earth allows for the potential for subversion within its own system, there are very strict limits to how we can push against these constraints. Would not “re-authoring the existing software and structures,” rather than working from the inside out, allow for less resistance in embracing the subjectivity of maps? Other than obvious issues of practicality, why is it more attractive to work “within the authorial structure”?

    There are some aspects of your argument that have led me to push against my own claims. While I would still argue that Google Earth inherently privileges objectivity, certain functions, such as the street view (among others), move from a viewpoint of disembodied space to something more individual and personal (yet still fixed). I must also admit that your discussion of space and its representations as co-produced has left me with a lot of questions. On the one hand, if how to interact with the world depends on both the world itself and its representation, wouldn’t this mean there is even more of a reason to “get it right”? After all, tools like Google Earth or Google Maps are only useful if their information is accurate, or else you may end up blocks from where you meant to be.

    Or, on the other hand, as I think you suggest, does this claim merely acknowledge the complicated relationship between the world and its maps? If we construct our conception of the world simultaneously and interdependently between the world itself and its various representations, I definitely see how we shape them through our collective experience, and finally how “space is not only an individually lived experience, but is always produced as a social experience.” My skepticism, I hope, comes from what I see as the limitations of subversion within Google Earth itself, and not your argument for embracing the subjectivity of cartography and the close, interconnected relationship between the world and its maps.

    Thank you very much for your response. I have no experience in writing about cartography or theories of space and place, but these articles captured my attention, and I found that I have plenty to say on the topic after all.

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