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The "Colonial Cartography" of Google Maps



At Real Life, Apoorva Tadepalli examines the ways that maps, historically used by state power to claim and represent territory, have changed in the age of online mapping tools like Google Maps and Instagram geotags. “This social media form of mapping,” writes Tadepalli, “creates personality and imposes a reality onto spaces that are inherently consumerist, in the same way that authoritarian imposition, both state and corporate, once did for the same locations.” Here’s an excerpt:

Maps have behaved throughout history as pieces of literature or devices of expression used to advance particular agendas. The image of a physical place, seen from above, gives a sense of wholeness, of truth. Maps have the power to give a physicality to places and things that do not exist, as with the maps of the Railroad and Death Valley: they made bad buys look solid and very real. The population of California at the turn of the century was less than two million, compared to the 40 million today; the development of the American West, a place that for most of the 19th century was not solid or real as far as most Americans could imagine or see, relied on maps that expressed aspirations, which included lies, in order to give Americans a picture of something that was being created, something that had to be willed into existence.

Maps are productive rather than simply informative creatures; they start dialogues and create identities. Historically, they have been used by centralized bodies, disseminating information to individuals — whether companies selling products or governments selling the idea of statehood. The internet takes maps and mapping practices from central bodies to individuals, but through this they remain totally detached from the geographical areas they supposedly represent, and invaluable tools for institutions to exercise power over people.

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