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.