In “Chapter 10: Census, Map, Museum” of Imagined Communities, that book by Benedict Anderson whose ideas seemed to crop up in all my Swarthmore classes regardless of discipline, Anderson describes the role of maps in forging our modern understanding of the nation-state. The crux of the argument: maps not only reflect our spatial understanding of the world, but they shape our understanding as well. Anderson cites Thai historian Thongchai at length and the passage is worth re-citing:
In terms of most communication theories and common sense, a map is a scientific abstraction of reality. A map merely represents something which already exists objectively ‘there.’ In the history I have described, this relationship was reversed. A map anticipated spatial reality, not vice versa. In other words, a map was a model for, rather than a model of, what it purported to represent…It had become a real instrument to concretize projections on the earth’s surface. A map was now necessary for the new administrative mechanism and for the troops to back up their claims…The discourse of mapping was the paradigm which both administrative and military operations worked within and served.
In short, the colonial map pushed the popular imagination towards a profane, homogeneous understanding of space. It presaged and legitimized colonial claims to territory. We wouldn’t be able to fathom the concept of a nation-state without the aid of maps.
Imagined Communities was first published in 1983, well before the dawn of the Internet, so I think that it is worthwhile to think about how maps have changed in the meantime and the effect of those changes on our imaginings of community. With the innovations brought by Google Maps, smartphone apps like AroundMe and crowdsourcing services like Ushahidi, maps for one thing are becoming much more interactive than previously thought possible. My previous post on biking apps demonstrates one tiny way in which our interaction with maps has changed.
The question for me is: how does our ability to interact with maps change our understanding of community, of space and boundaries? To such a question there are no easy answers because changes haven’t taken full effect. How will maps augmented by social media direct the future of our urban landscapes?
I hope in this blog to explore some of the possibilities.