A critical cartography of online oral history maps?

This is Part 4 of a 4 part series.

This post follows Part 1 (Presenting oral history online), Part 2 (Maps, and how they are used in oral history) and Part 3 (Narratives, place-making and oral history maps) In Part 3 I argued that oral history maps have a narrative of their own, one that tends to be place-based and created from layers of meaning that are built up over the narrative of the map, and in combination with those of the stories and the images that are pinned to them.

A brief look at critical cartography

Since the 1980s, critical cartography has set about exposing “hidden, and sometimes hideous, narratives embedded in maps”.i Map narratives, both because of their cultural embeddedness and the need for interpretation, can be difficult to trace. Over-familiarity with conventions of mapping can blind us to the nature of some of the narratives they contain, particularly when the conventions have been developed to create an illusion of neutrality (representation based on objective measurement/quantification and devoid of interpretation). Because maps based on quantitative data are now the norm, drawn up using well-established methodologies, and because we operate within established paradigms when we read maps, the narrative of the maps itself is often rendered invisible (or opaque). But maps are never neutral. To create them necessitates decisions about what information to include, and what information to leave out. Examining the decisions made during the process of map-making is a focus of critical cartography, and much of this work has emerged as an important component in the development of post-colonial studies. Here, the choices that have gone into maps as they are created (what is recorded, how it is represented, and what is omitted) tell their own stories of maps as a tool of control, of establishing boundaries, of laying claim to property. Critical cartography suggests that maps in general can be documents that reveal a story, and that they are, therefore, narratives, even if the narrative that they tell is not always apparent to their users.

Critical cartography and map “mash-ups”?

Creating online maps and populating them with personal, commercial or community information is now possible through many online tools that are freely available. It has been suggested that the availability of these tools is a change that could initiate transformative map-making processes and technologies that are “widely distributed, and increasingly democratized”.ii Others have a less positive view of these technologies, noting that the “bottom-up potential” of these tools is not always realised, as the material will reflect the interests of the most active users rather than the public in general.iii This can create a hierarchy of locations, perhaps indicating that some mapping technologies are less potentially transformative than is often suggested.iv

In practice, Google Maps tends to be the most commonly used interface for user-generated map-based content.v Critics have voiced concern that the popularity of the Google Maps API, combined with the fact that Google Maps are based on private code, owned and controlled by for-profit organisation) means that Google has created a privatised representation of digital place that is fast becoming “the de facto digital globe”.vi

Digital maps, such as those created by Google have been developed through a convergence of private (corporate) and personal interests. This is in contrast to the development of nineteenth and twentieth century maps, when maps were largely political products driven by requirements of state:

Just as the specific interests of the nation state have largely shaped the reality produced by paper maps throughout the centuries, the recent convergence of interests between high-tech private companies and a small group of technologically savvy individuals is now shaping the reality produced through geosocial media.vii

Implications for oral history maps?

Does this have implications for how we see the narratives of oral history mapping projects? Google Maps is often the base map used in these projects – of the six oral history maps listed in Part 2, four examples were based on the Google Maps API.

Oral history projects that used the Google Maps API:

The two oral history maps that did not use Google Maps were:

Are there implications for the way these projects might be critically interpreted in the future? What effect does the frequent use of Google Maps associated with online oral history projects have?

It is likely that the typically small, not-for-profit, community and academic research organisations that create these mapping oral history projects are driven by considerations such as affordability, and the fact that map mash-up tools, such as Google Maps, are available at no cost is one of the keys to their popularity.viii Other considerations could include issues of accessibility and usability. The popularity of Google Maps amongst oral historians, and the deliberate choice of other maps by some projects, is surely an issue that merits some further research.

Notes

i Caquard, S. (2011). Cartography I: Mapping narrative cartography. Progress in Human Geography, 37(1), 135–144. doi:10.1177/0309132511423796 (see p. 136).

ii Branch, J. (2011). Mapping the sovereign state: technology, authority, and systemic change. International Organization, 65, 1–36 (see p. 32).

iii Elwood, S., Goodchild, M. and Sui. D. (2012). Researching Volunteered Geographic Information: Spatial Data, Geographic Research, and New Social Practice. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102(3), 571–590.(see p. 584).

iv Caquard, S. (2013). Cartography II: Collective cartographies in the social media era. Progress in Human Geography, (OnlineFirst). doi:10.1177/0309132513514005 (see p.6).

v Li, S., & Gong, J. (2008). Mashup: a New Way of Providing Web Mapping and GIS Services. In ISPRS Congress Beijing (pp. 639–649). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.159.1766&rep=rep1&type=pdf (see p. 640).

vi Zook, M. A., & Graham, M. (2007). The creative reconstruction of the Internet: Google and the privatization of cyberspace and DigiPlace. Geoforum, 38(6), 1322–1343. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2007.05.004 (see p. 1341).

vii Caquard, S. (2013). Cartography II: Collective cartographies in the social media era. Progress in Human Geography, (OnlineFirst). doi:10.1177/0309132513514005 (see p.6).

viii Li, S., & Gong, J. (2008). Mashup: a New Way of Providing Web Mapping and GIS Services. In ISPRS Congress Beijing (pp. 639–649). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.159.1766&rep=rep1&type=pdf (see p. 639).