In Conversation

Living on the digital grid: William Rankin discusses his book ‘After the Map’

From a traditional paper map to the little blue dot on a GPS, the history of the map is put into context in William Rankin’s recently published book.

From a traditional paper map to the little blue dot on a GPS, the history of the map is put into context in William Rankin’s recently published book “After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the 20th Century.”

In “After the Map,” Rankin, who is assistant professor of the history of science, explores, among other topics, the shift in maps from a “gods-eye-view” to the embedded experience of GPS.

The Yale scholar recently sat for an interview with YaleNews to discuss what is gained and lost in the transition from paper maps, and how he integrates his research into this topic into his undergraduate teaching.

Here is what we learned.

What is lost when we no longer look at the broader geographic views you see on maps, but simply follow the little blue GPS dot from place to place?

There are two common responses to this. It would be tempting to say that life is just getting better and better because now we can do all of these amazing things with GPS that we couldn’t do with paper maps. We can find new restaurants anywhere in the world, just by following directions on a screen! But it’s also tempting to say that we’re losing our sense of place, our ability to navigate on our own, or even the joy of getting truly lost. It’s sad to think that our children won’t pore over maps the way we did when we were young.

There’s something to be said for both of these responses, but rather than just choosing between progress and decline I’m more interested in how GPS is changing what’s possible. It’s possible now to connect a series of disconnected points relatively easily. On a personal level, this means being able to travel between A and B without knowing anything in between. You can’t do this with a paper map, since navigating outside the map’s boundaries is quite difficult. But at the same time, we are definitely giving up the kind of in-depth knowledge of a larger neighborhood that we get from traditional maps. So it’s not really about life getting better or worse, but about exchanging an intensive understanding of a particular area with this much more expansive ability to connect a series of points.

How do technologies like GPS or satellites affect international commerce and culture (that is, all the things besides military uses)?

One of the things I’m trying to understand is the extent to which GPS is really a military technology. It was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, and it’s obviously used for military purposes, but it’s not only a military technology. GPS is used by many non-military groups for a wide variety of reasons — everywhere from geology to recreational hunting. And through my research I realized that all these uses share some important commonalities. They’re mostly about intervening in unfamiliar places without the need for long-term geographic commitment. This is true for sending missiles to the middle of the desert, for rapid-response humanitarian aid after an earthquake or landslide, for driving directions while on vacation, and for environmental field research. Rather than focusing on the difference between military and non-military goals — destruction versus aid, bad versus good — I think it’s really helpful to focus on how the technology is actually used. And then the non-military uses don’t look so different.

Is every map a political statement?

Yes, but that’s a qualified yes. For most maps, the politics are implicit; only rarely are they well-considered and coherent. Most mapmakers do not start their day by thinking, “What political stance am I trying to make in my work?” What this means is that a map can have multiple meanings; it can even be contradictory. For example, one of the projects I studied was the International Map of the World, which was a collaboration between dozens of countries to create a standardized set of maps for the entire world. It started in the 1890s and remained active until the 1980s — almost a hundred years. But because it was such an enormous project, it combined many different types of politics. Deciding who would actually make the maps — “civilized” versus “uncivilized” countries, for example — was explicitly political. Choices about symbols, colors, and text were also political, but only implicitly so, and they didn’t necessarily align with the broader discussions about civilization. So we should definitely see all maps as political, but we need to read them at multiple levels at once.

How do you integrate this research into your teaching?

My main undergraduate seminar, “Cartography, Territory, and Identity,” is a broad exploration of the history of mapping. The first half of the course focuses on the relationship between maps and the construction of nation-states, nationalism, colonialism, and post-colonial identity. The second half of the course then presents challenges or alternatives to state-sponsored cartography, including non-Western, religious, indigenous, and statistical mapping. My historical research sits at the hinge between these two parts of the course. As a historian I’m interested in how the traditional paper map, produced by national governments or large organizations, has been challenged by other approaches. So I want my students to think creatively about geographic knowledge in general, not just about the standard maps they might be most familiar with. And it’s really gratifying to see the students expand their understanding of what a map can be and to put maps into a much broader discussion about politics, identity, and power.

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