No Dig, No Fly, No Go: How Maps Restrict and Control

Do maps themselves contribute to the imposition and construction of social controls, asks Joni Seager

August 26, 2010

Mark Monmonier is one of the most visible members of a small cadre of geographers who are making a popular discourse of cartography. As an ambassador-in-chief of maps, he has brought map-making out of its rather technocratic and abstruse realm into the public intellectual arena. In his now-classic How To Lie With Maps (1991), Monmonier took us on a romp through the errors and distortions - some intended, others accidental, many hilarious - that occur when abstract ideas and multidimensional realities are rendered in cartographic form.

This book is best understood as a direct intellectual successor of How to Lie With Maps. Monmonier explores what he calls "prohibitive cartography", the primary instruments of which are imperative maps, "similar to imperative sentences - the bossy ones that often end in an exclamation point". The range of maps he contemplates is astonishingly broad - which is part of his point that maps that tell us what we can and can't do, and where we can or can't go, are everywhere, from floodplain maps to aviation charts, and from city zoning maps to maps marking out national territories.

The chapter on international boundaries rehearses material that may be familiar to many observers of history and political economy, but seen through a cartographic lens, the terrible consequences of lines on maps become more sharply evident. As Monmonier says, "lines matter": they are the bleeding edge of conflict and alienation - whether between Israel and Palestine, the Koreas or the Balkans. Social exclusion lines, whether those of the apartheid zones of South Africa or the "redlining" maps of realtors in 20th-century American cities, can exact a most dreadful price.

It is at this juncture that No Dig, No Fly, No Go enters the debate about the power of maps: are maps passive instruments of social order or do they actively participate in the construction and imposition of social controls? Monmonier asserts the latter; as the book's subtitle suggests, he views maps as instruments of power in themselves.

But others argue that it is not maps that tell us what we can and can't do; rather, they are simply the inscriptions of larger social constructions. The map-maker of a floodplain map does not decide where the boundary lies between "little flood risk" and "be prepared to get wet"; the aviation map carries the message about where not to fly, but it is an aviation authority agency that has decided where the "no fly" zones lie; an apartheid map marks out no-go territory that a jurisdictional authority has determined.

Frustratingly, Monmonier does not directly engage with these debates. His position is clear, but he asserts it rather than argues it, and in doing so, does not provide much assistance to a reader in weighing the evidence on the agency of maps and mapping.

Nonetheless, he provides rich material for a reader to contemplate. Efforts by municipalities to geographically restrict "adult entertainment" activities are among the most amusing examples of prohibitive cartography. Monmonier relates the tale of Cicero, New York, which sited its red-light district in a far-flung corner of the municipality so remote that it could be accessed only by leaving Cicero's jurisdiction and driving a circuitous route through the neighbouring town. As Monmonier drily points out, the officials of the neighbouring town were not amused.

The final chapter touches briefly on the emergence of electronic boundaries and the recent emergence of tools of ubiquitous surveillance, including Google mapping and satellite monitoring. Monmonier tantalises us with his conclusion that the "threats to liberty and privacy (posed by these new technologies) demand a healthy skepticism of utopian claims for geospatial technologies", but he leaves that claim undeveloped. Perhaps it is a topic for his next book?

No Dig, No Fly, No Go: How Maps Restrict and Control

By Mark Monmonier

University of Chicago Press

242pp, £42.00 and £11.50

ISBN 9780226534671 and 4688

Published 25 May 2010

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