NEOGEOGRAPHY: Mapping Our Place in the World

NeogeographyGoogle Earth offers us a mesmerizing view of our planet. More than 350 million people have downloaded the program since its launch in 2005, and new features (including street-level photographs, real-time weather data, and vast amounts of user-generated content) augment the software on a monthly, weekly, even daily basis. With the click of a mouse, amateur mapmakers can zoom in on an aerial view of any point on Earth, create maps tailored to their personal tastes, and overlay location-based annotations directly onto a photorealistic representation of the landscape. “Geotagging,” the practice of attaching geographical coordinates to digital photographs, has become increasingly popular via online photo-sharing websites such as Flickr or Panoramio, and one can now browse millions of snapshots and videos superimposed on streetscapes or satellite views of the ground.

Digital mapping programs continue a cartographic legacy that has existed for centuries. Embedded within this technology is the promise of the god’s eye view, the projection of our human desire to reduce the complexity of life on the planet to manageable proportions. Yet the ability to see more of the earth does not mean that we necessarily know more about it. Spinning a virtual globe and gazing at satellite images we become disembodied consumers of the landscape. The planet is reduced to digitized bits of information, a ready-made spectacle for our viewing pleasure. We fly over the earth at high altitudes, thrilling in the illusion of control proffered by the view from above, but it’s easy to lose oneself in this untethered perspective. The emptiness and abstraction of aerial photographs call for deeper levels of local validation in order to read them. We must rely heavily on context and experience to understand what these images reveal. The alienation that results from the universalizing distance of satellite vision creates a desire to find oneself in the landscape, to reassert the human presence on the map.

The ability for millions of individuals to “ground truth” the map of the world by adding personalized, user-generated content marks a shift in the evolution of cartography. Although this technology is still in its infancy, the new geography emerging on the Web today points to a different understanding of what a map might become in the future. Google Earth is not simply a cartographic gadget; it is a powerful storytelling medium. There is more to a map than getting from Point A to Point B. We each live in a world that we map out for ourselves every day. Our memories, experiences, and interactions give shape to the space that we inhabit. Maps have always told stories—what’s different now is the ability for anyone, not just trained professionals, to use maps to describe something meaningful spatially, and to share this situated knowledge, these personal geographies, with others.

It’s said that history is being rewritten every day. Why shouldn’t maps be redrawn just as often?