Of Maps and Might

MARK MONMONIER – This interview marks the beginning of a two-part series exploring the power of maps. Now more than ever it is important to explore the world from a cartographic perspective.

Maps are a forgotten wildcard when it comes to studying the international political system — they are often seen as products of diplomacy and posturing, not tools of those endeavors. With the War in Iraq over, and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, the importance of cartography should not be underestimated. Professor Monmonier explains how place names, boundaries, and which projection a mapmaker chooses can play a role in deciding the political future of a region. Looking at Mercator’s Projection from 1569, to the Cold War distortions of continental sizes, to the violent border between Israel and Palestine, we begin to understand the power maps play in deciding futures.

(click here to read the second installment)

I have read about Mercator’s map, and how it distorts the proportionate size of countries and continents — It was accused of acting as geographical propaganda in support of colonialism. How do maps today purposefully or inadvertently skew country boundaries, and are they still used in a propagandistic sense? 

It is hard to say if Mercator’s map was ever used as propaganda, although certainly it became convenient for some people in Britain who wanted to exaggerate the extent of the British Empire. There are examples of Mercator charts that show the Australian continent on the left and the right. However, the Mercator map later became convenient as a “whipping boy” for some pro-Third World groups who jumped on the bandwagon, as it were, of the German Historian Arno Peters, who created an equal-area map – but hardly the first equal-area map — back in the 1970s.* He presented a false dilemma between either his map or the Mercator map — between which map should be used. He created a situation of “if you don’t use [my] map, you’ll use the Mercator map, which is wretchedly Euro-centric.”

There are many questions posed here. Boundaries and place names can be used on a map to assert a claim. That practice is certainly widespread. Some of the classic continuing examples would be the Kashmiri area, where there are overlapping land claims between India and Pakistan, and also between India and China. The particular projection that is used is fairly immaterial there.

The Mercator map is not used as much these days, although I need to qualify this statement: there Mercator maps designed just for navigation or small areas — it is used quite frequently for navigation charts because it does have an accurate portrayal of angles. When you have a whole-world map on a rectangular projection — that is to say, the meridians are straight lines running up and down, and the parallels are straight lines moving left to right — areas just become enormously large with increasing distance from the equator. The Mercator map got a fair amount of traction because it was useful for navigation, and marine navigation was certainly important for Europe and expeditions of discovery. That was clearly a part of colonial occupation.

How do politics and political objectives shape how a map is used and drawn?

The drawing of a map involves the choice of a projection, and when you choose a particular projection, there is the issue of what is going to be at the center. The actual framing of a map has a tendency to marginalize certain territories. You could have a world map which is, say, centered on North America, or you can have a world map centered on the Greenwich Meridian. In any case, a world map will tend to distort distance significantly, and should never have a bar scale.

If one looks at some of the propaganda maps from Germany, which were used in the 1930s and 1940s, it is apparent that German leaders were trying to justify their taking of neighboring territories by emphasizing the threat of Czechoslovakia and Poland, because of their proximity to the German capital. It is impossible to say this kind of map was ever effective politically, because the Czechs and Poles were not convinced by it — not very many people outside Germany were convinced by it — but if people already bought the German claims, these maps served to reinforce this view.

During the Cold War, some people preferred maps that provided an “over-the-pole” view, which emphasized the proximity of North America, especially Northern Canada and Alaska, to the USSR. If people were apprehensive of an over-the-pole missile attack, that map would certainly feed that concern. There were instances in which the Mercator map was used to show the worldwide spread of communism. Because the Soviet Union does extend fairly high latitudinally, on a Mercator chart it does become quite large — so people could basically color in the Soviet Union, China, other places threatened by communism, and the map would tend to make these regions look disproportionately vast. The use of red — which in many societies connotes danger — would enhance this threat.

The placement of boundaries on maps, the placement of place names, the use of language to claim territory — these all affect how a map, as a representation of territory, is perceived and used. Today, in the case of Palestine and Israel, there has been a considerable amount of contestation. The Israelis at one point were putting place names on a map in Hebrew. There were Palestinian maps on which the mapmaker resurrected place names of villages which no longer exist. These would be examples of using place names to claim territory.

The modern Middle Eastern map was largely drawn by colonialists and non-natives to the region. What are the consequences of having a kind of “ignorant map” — what are the consequences of having boundaries drawn by people who are ignorant of the social and cultural situation in the region?

I think there are more problems inherent to maps drawn by people who are not ignorant of the region but would simply like to have a larger slice of territory. Taking the case of Africa, which is even a greater illustration of the ease with which boundaries can be put down on maps to claim territory, there are many straight-line boundaries and boundaries which run along rivers. Riverine boundaries were relatively easy to specify. Meridians and parallels were perhaps a little trickier — they could be easily plotted on maps, but when the lines were later laid out on the landscape with monuments it was not always that easy to follow a particular parallel or meridian.

Putting a boundary on a map for purposes of a treaty is relatively easy, but when politicians start to demarcate boundaries and create the larger-scale maps necessary for local administration of territory, things become considerably trickier.

If you go the Middle East, there are various deals that were made during World War One between Britain and France. These two countries essentially worked out a partition of the region, which emerged after the war, by which some parts were in the British protectorate, and some were controlled by France. I do not think that these lines were drawn by people who didn’t know very much about the region; the British and the French had been active there; they had colonies there. It was not a matter of ignorance — what they were not doing was consulting local people.

I imagine that the goals of the colonists would clearly conflict with the desires of those living in the region. 

Things became considerably more complicated after World War Two, when there was a significant influx of Jewish people from Europe and elsewhere. There were two significant national groups competing for the same territory. Now there is the West Bank area, which is occupied by Israel, and conceivably could be part of a separate Palestinian State. Especially intriguing is the use of a security fence by the Israelis to create a complicated border. What the Israelis are trying to do is to draw a line over the landscape that is both a border and a barrier. That boundary line is a very contorted one; the apparent goal is to encompass some significant outliers (Israeli settlements), that is, to rope things into a single state that would not have outliers.

Perhaps maps can act as a vehicle for bringing groups together. Does the notion of “cartographic diplomacy” exist, or are maps one-sided?

You can have maps that are collaborative, certainly. Maps have been very useful in making treaties, and to resolve conflict by saying, “this side of the line is ours, the other side is yours.” This kind of situation can happen two ways: the use of boundary lines to partition territory and resolve conflict, but you can also have situation where one of two opposing powers says that the boundary should be one place and the other says it should be elsewhere. We have overlap, and can find interesting situations in which the map itself becomes a hot-button issue. For example India is highly resistant to any effort to import a map – even one as small as the one used by Microsoft to indicate time-zones — that does not acknowledge the government’s claim to Kashmir.  (The Microsoft map was “off” by only four pixels.)

In the Middle East, the issue of place names is key in terms of claiming territory. As far as mapping is concerned, maps are also extremely important in terms of military planning. Mapping was part of the larger intelligence initiative in modern conflict. That gets into the issue of not only paper maps and drawn boundaries, but also satellite intelligence.

When you published Spying With Maps in 2002,the war in Afghanistan was just beginning and American troops hadn’t yet invaded Iraq. Now, looking back from the end of the Iraqi conflict, how have maps evolved in the intelligence community? 

Intelligence leaders need some kind of electronic database: a collection of satellite imagery. What they are concerned with here is having pictures from multiple dates, so they can see what was on the ground a year or a month earlier, and compare that to what they can see there now. Multi-temporal imagery is useful in looking for suspicious features that might be defensive structures or places used to manufacture weapons. It is important to have this multi-temporal imagery be kept continually up-to-date. And now with drones, intelligence gatherers are able to take very detailed pictures and have an extremely detailed database. I would imagine that aspect of cartography, which is very different from the wall map or atlas map, is going to be the principal kind of military mapping to be used in the future.

You ask in Spying With Maps, “Could diverse forms of monitoring [tracking, geographic data, satellite imagery] lead to grave consequences for society?” What were these consequences, and how would you answer that question now, a decade later?

Satellite imagery is certainly pervasive right now, and there is worldwide recognition that the information is collected, and that detailed, high-resolution images are used by the intelligence community. Members of terrorist groups would certainly not like the level of scrutiny that is possible with high-resolution satellite imagery, but there is a concern on the other side of the conflict that publicly available satellite imagery — available, say, from Google — could be used to plot an attack. There was a great deal of talk in the geospatial community about privacy regulations in the late 1990s, and very early in the 21st century. But then 9/11 happened, and this interest in geospatial privacy seemed to evaporate.

Do you suppose that if there had been no ‘War on Terror’ there would be a different view of these capabilities — did the threat of international terrorism create a different mentality towards these practices?

People in the United States generally became more accepting of surveillance by the state as a legitimate protective measure. But you do find, for instance, some interesting contrasts between the US and Europe in terms of public attitude towards privacy. Take Google’s ability to image people’s homes, to collect pictures of front yards — while this is accepted in the United States, several European countries have banned this technology. There has been significant pushback in Germany, for example. These images do raise the issue over whether some people can start their own websites, and put this information online, and thus make it publicly available. In effect, this is surveillance not so much by government than by private institutions and corporations. Google is an example insofar as the topographic map on Google, though different from the topographic map produced the US Geological Survey, is considerably more current, and it’s also far more readily accessible. In a sense, Google has taken over the federal government’s role of publishing standardized large-scale maps

After 9/11 there seemed to be a great deal of concern among the public about the availability of this information, and there are instances in which presumably sensitive features on orthophotographic maps provided to Google by geospatial information clearing houses like that in New York State have been deliberately blurred to hide details that might be of use to terrorists. In some ways this might seem mildly paranoid insofar as terrorists would have no difficulty getting more detailed photographs if they wanted them, either from other sources or even from the small drones (radio-controlled model airplanes) that can be bought for several hundred dollars.

Can maps be used as weapons, by illicit groups and countries, as the ability to surveil with greater detail is improved?

I’m not sure the connection with mapping is all that strong, but ultimately I believe the answer is yes. What is intriguing is the possibility that some of these maps might be hacked, something very few people are talking about. Hackers might get into a database, and change boundary lines and street addresses, move things around — that is certainly not outside the realm of possibility these days.


MARK MONMONIER is distinguished professor of geography at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the author of many books, the most recent of which is No Dig, No Fly, No Go: How Maps Restrict and Control (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

*NOTE: A prime reason why academic cartographers resisted the Peters map is that his claim of priority was patently false. An equal-area projection—the sinusoidal—had been used as early as 1570, and in 1855 James Gall introduced the same grid that Peters claimed to have invented. Simply put, Peters was either a sloppy scholar or a liar.

Here is the second installment, “Churchill’s Hiccup”

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