Conspiracy of cartographers

Maps and Politics
April 27, 2001

Our need-to-know-now society is becoming ever more visual. Television and instant news both fulfil and feed our need. Maps are part of this onscreen medium, yet it is doubtful if many viewers are aware of the extent to which their comprehension is manipulated by the manner in which a map has been drawn. Jeremy Black's book stimulates that awareness. The emphasis is on modern maps and how they are presented, but throughout the book historical detail sets current practices in perspective.

Black warns us that mapping is problematic and that subjectivity is central to the production and understanding of maps. He begins his argument by showing how the choice of a projection can influence our conception of the world: which continent or country is placed centrally on the page; if there is to be no Mercator distortion it must be replaced by another, equally disruptive, such as the Peters' equal area projection used in Peters' Atlas of the World (1989). The selection of maps, the order in which they are placed in an atlas and the varying scales used for different parts of the world are largely commercial considerations. A modern atlas that included a map of Mongolia on a similar scale to one of France is unlikely to sell in larger numbers for this reason alone.

When Black moves to the mapping of socioeconomic issues, he is more doubtful about the value of maps to depict today's problems. Symbols become more important than geographical features. An arrow that is broad and red gives an impression of conflict, while a narrow green one might depict a gentle spread of a positive influence. The title can also affect our opinion. "The nuclear industry in..." and "The threat from nuclear power plants" can apply to the same map, but our reactions will differ as we read them. Black uses many examples of "persuasive" mapping to show how falsely maps can depict a problem.

The use of maps for political purposes is similar. They can bring out differences of fact, but their capacity to explain or capture the nuances is more limited. Here, omissions have a role to play, but the spread of mapping software allows those with little knowledge about the power of maps to support their own views without knowing the problems such omissions or erring depictions can cause. Now that maps are so easy to produce, they can be used in ways for which they are unsuitable and give a false impression of the true facts.

The final two chapters discuss maps depicting frontiers and wars. In the past, adequate maps were rarely available for use in treaties, so they were supported by lists of places along the boundary, and maps then drawn to show where the line might lie. On the other hand, where no dispute took place, whole states might be bounded on the map by straight lines, regardless of the terrain or the ethnicity of the indigenous peoples. Those planning campaigns required accurate maps, and the public at home demanded ever more maps to inform them of military progress, thus encouraging the development of surveying and cartographic techniques, and the increase of a dependency on maps to elucidate written texts. Black uses a wide selection of examples, but surprisingly he does not discuss the renaming of villages on Turkish maps of Cyprus, nor the changing demarcation line in Kashmir depending on the origin of the map, from India or Pakistan. In both issues, maps play a vital role.

After reading this book, one is unlikely to look at a map in quite the same way again. Once the uses to which lines, colours, symbols and text can be put to provide an almost subliminal influence on the viewer's comprehension are understood, those making maps will become more expert in expressing their bias, and those who use them to enlarge their understanding of a situation will become more adept at reading them. In a visual age with no physical barriers, map-makers must find ever wider needs for their competence if they are to survive.

Susan Gole is international chairman, International Map Collectors' Society.

Maps and Politics

Author - Jeremy Black
ISBN - 1 86189 012 5 and 081 8
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £19.95 and £12.95
Pages - 188

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