The Science, Power, and Politics reading group that I am running this year at Harvard this week looked at the role that maps play in creating ‘objective’ knowledge for a state. The primary reading for this was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, although James Scott also discussed this same point in Seeing Like a State. More recently in the August issue of Social Studies of Science, Christine Leuenberger and Izhak Schnell discuss “The politics of maps: Constructing national territories in Israel.” The basic point is that maps allow a visualization of a territory, which in turns allows for state’s to promote their control over that territory.
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega shows a map referring to the territorial dispute with Costa Rica during an address to the nation in Managua November 13, 2010. (Reuters)
While this point may have been true when map-making was largely in the hands of government officials (or companies closely aligned with governments) I was curious about what a company like Google might do with its powerful map website. Would this company create a map of the world that was open to all? A democratization of cartography? We have already seen one consequence of Google’s mapping with the recent Nicaraguan invasion of Costa Rica, which I might add, is still ongoing. Whether Google maps played a pivotal role, or whether it was just a rhetorical ploy of legitimation is a moot point here. That it was invoked suggests that it was seen as being a source of legitimation.
So is Google an independent entity, or does the United States maintain some degree of control over this powerful metaphor of state power? I decided to find out by looking at a couple other areas on Google maps that the US has some interest in.
The first point of note for me with the map of Kabul was the amazing inaccuracy of the streets that were labelled. It was obvious that there the was only a general correlation between the location and direction of the streets on the image versus on the overlaid map. The second point I noted was the lack of any detail on the streets. I zoomed out to all of Afghanistan to look at it compared to its neighbors, and found more interesting things.
On the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, we can see that Pakistan has more detail shown in its road structure, and also names are shown in Arabic as well as English. The detail of the one country compared to the other is more obvious as one scrolls into the border, where we can see that the map in Pakistan closely aligns with the satellite imagery. On the Afghan side, however, the map of the road that crosses the border is a good mile off of the satellite image.
Was Google complying with the US government to purposefully distort the maps in Afghanistan for security reasons? To be clear, I am not adverse to such regulation. I just am curious as to how states relate to this development of mass cartography. To test this hypothesis, I thought I’d look at two other areas of interest to the US. The first is Tehran:
Here we can see a stark difference to Kabul. The city as well as streets are all labelled, and many in Arabic as well as English. There are also links to public transportation. The map lines up perfectly with the satellite image. What’s going on here? Is Google providing all this information because the US is not stopping it here? But what about Iran? Does the government want all of this detail in its capital? Perhaps it does, but I thought I would look at a few other examples as well. The first is Lhasa, the site in Tibet of several protests by Monks that has received publicity, most recently in 2008.
Here we can see what seems to be a combination of the first and second examples. At a distant level, we can see the name of the city, at a medium level, we can see more detail of the streets. But at a near level, all mapping is gone. Curiously, at a very near level, we see that some buildings have been shaded blue and some red. I have no explanation for this image shading, and a quick google search did not turn up anything. We can guess about who had a say here about the level of detail available in the map, and I doubt it was the US.
The second example is of North Korea:
Perhaps it is no real surprise that there is absolutely no data on North Korea at all (other than its name), at any level. But why not? Surely it would be in the US interest to have maps of the roads there. Or even locations of the cities.
I think what these images (and my very quick analysis) tell us is that Google, far from being an independent entity, is still beholden to not one, but likely several governments in what information it can include on maps and what information it cannot. Maps, it seems, are still a vital part of state-making, and one over which governments are not quick to relinquish control.