Thursday, November 26, 2009

Maps as collective knowledge

I read a great article on map making in one of my classes in graduate school. The class was taught by a historian of science and was titled "Empires of Knowledge." One of the key books for this course was, of course, James Scott's Seeing Like a State. The article on map making was "Mapping Inuktut: Inuit Views of the Real World," by Renée Fossett.[1]

Fossett's article introduced me to a deeper understanding of how map making is a cultural practice that reflects a given worldview, how maps serve specific and important cultural roles, and how maps both reflect and help formulate an individual's perceptions within the context of a given time and place. As Robert Anton Wilson has written, "the map is not the territory"--but maps are fascinating windows into sociological, anthropological, and mental constructs.

Anyway, I came upon a fascinating article in the NY Times about some new directions that maps and map making are headed: user-refined interactive online maps.

Map making may have its earliest roots in a variant of processes such as Fossett outlines. Maps were tribe- and culture-specific and served practical and spiritual purposes, but did not necessarily correlate with the "real world," as conceived by approaches and technologies that enabled a more topographically and spatially "accurate" view of the lay of the land. As a tool of empire, maps became, in the West, cosmological and political extensions of an empire's sense of itself and sense of its extension of itself in relation to other lands and empires. As the Western imperial project evolved in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, this way of seeing the world became much more concerned with representing spatial and topographical "reality" as closely as possible.

As Helft describes in his NY Times piece, there's a fascinating new wrinkle to what maps can be. This new kind of map making benefits from what Scott articulates as an imperial view because it requires pinpoint detail, clear demarcation, and GPS-quality accuracy. However, it also contains a solid measure of the approach to mapping that Fossett shows in the Inuit approach, in that the maps are open to individual input and, therefore, reflect nuances and values that can only be provided by these macro-level experts of a given locale. This is an exciting development and opens up entire universes of possibilities.

[1] Renée Fossett, "Mapping Inuktut: Inuit Views of the Real World," in Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History, ed. Jennifer S. H. Brown and Elizabeth Vibert, Peterborough, Ont., Broadview Press, 1996, pp. 74-94.


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