Atlas Shrugged

The new face of maps

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Despite their current usefulness, maps were not invented out of a landowner's beneficent desire to help the locals find the shortest path to the market. Both a symbol and an instrument of power, maps are a tangible expression of the 'civilization' of areas that previously had no borders, no roads, and no rigidly defined populations. But today breakthroughs in mapping are challenging not only the biases and intentions of map-makers in general, but the very notion that a piece of paper with colored drawings is an accurate way to orient ourselves in an ever-changing world.

Perhaps the biggest advancement in map-making is a digital information technology called Geographic Information Systems (GIS). According to GIS World, Inc. , GIS is 'the computer technology for managing, manipulating, and analyzing geographic spatial data.' A more, uh, concrete example about how GIS works comes from Warren Cohen, a GIS specialist at Oregon State University who told Lingua Franca (July/Aug. 1995): 'GIS is like pizza. It allows you to put on layer after layer but still see the whole thing or any of the layers.' In other words, the new map images are three-dimensional, allowing not only a view of say, a road layout, but also the sewer lines, phone wires, underground cables and water mains that exist several levels beneath it.

What's more, since it is available to anyone who has a computer and a couple of floppies, GIS is taking map-making out of the hands of the specialists and into those of anyone interested in defining their particular corner of the planet. An issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly (Winter 1995) devoted to the politics of mapping is an excellent example of the boon GIS can be not only for indigenous peoples fighting to reclaim or protect their territories, but also for environmentalists who need to juxtapose many competing pieces of data, as well as women whose spaces and livelihoods have not traditionally been charted.