A Foucauldian/Psychogeographical Critique of Contemporary Cartography

From the earliest cave-painting maps to today’s computer-driven cartographic methods, the products have reflected contemporary tools and technologies. As innovation allowed humans to travel greater distances, mapped areas grew simultaneously: the ship allowed for mapping Earth, satellites provided access to the galaxy. Production (and reproduction) innovations provided those in power greater distribution channels for their maps. 

Cartography is an exercise of power. Only the educated are both adept with current technologies and possess the intellect required for the abstract thinking inherent in the process of scaling and flattening the world (and beyond) into a mappable output.  Not only does the cartographer decide the content and organization of the map, he or she must also have the means of production to create the map. This has been true throughout history as empires used cartography to control and dispatch their armies, to plan empirical expansion, and to maximize financial gains through efficient trade routes with other countries. As the powerful have written history, so too have they drawn the maps. Michel Foucault referred to the process of cartography as a “technology of power.”

Our reliance on maps has increased as we have become an increasingly mobile society. Through advances in mobile technology and GPS, maps play a larger role in our daily lives than in any time in history. Though there are competitors, (Uber, Lyft, Apple, TomTom et al.) Google is by far the largest cartographer in the 21st century, using its fortune to map every square inch of the globe while utilizing its dominant distribution channels. As Medieval Kings sent sailors and cartographers on mapping missions by sea, Google sends satellitesto space and the ubiquitous Google Cars equipped with 360 degree cameras to cities to map our contemporary world, then coded and transmitted to billions of screens across the world. Medieval maps (et al.) amplified power by showing in detail the palaces and buildings of the wealthy and powerful, while the neighborhoods and buildings of common people were simply rendered as dots. Google employs a similar hierarchical strategy by showing different categories of information the further the viewer is zoomed. This prioritizes some businesses (advertisers) by showing their locations at the default scale, but requiring the viewer to zoom to see other businesses, essentially creating a class-structure for business visibility.

The Situationist critique of cartography is as applicable today as it was in the 1960s. The Situationists espoused “psychogeography,” an experiential, phenomenological relationship to the urban environment, inherently absent in the cold science of cartography. When a viewer looks at a map from a birds-eye view, human life and activity are removed, along with any non-administrative ideas of edges or borders. 

When one uses Google Maps for directions, there is no differentiation between routes, paths are optimized for efficiency in time over appeal, interest, safety and joy, effectively suppressing urbanity. In addition to the options of automobile, transit, bike, and walk, perhaps users could input their gender and interests. Conceivably, using machine learning and variably overlays, psychogeography could be a consideration in route optimization.