Thesis Excerpt

NEOGEOGRAPHY: Mapping Our Place in the World

We should now talk of people making not their own history but their own geography.
—John Urry

From a black screen dotted with pinpoints of starlight, an image of the Earth appears before me. The curving edges of the globe glow with a halo of light, but unlike the familiar marbled NASA photographs of the earth from space, no swirling cloud layer obstructs my view. The landmass in the foreground is flecked with a pixelated patchwork of green and brown rectangles, varying in shape and size. The jagged coastlines of the continents form crisp edges against the wide expanse of ocean, rendered in a swath of richly textured blue that extends to the edge of my screen. By clicking on the globe or entering a location into the search bar, I zoom, rotate, tilt, and manipulate the planet at will. At my command, a close-up view of any point on the globe appears in the frame. This is Google Earth.

The free software application maps the planet, using a mosaic of satellite images and aerial photographs stitched together to form a unified whole. More than a third of the Earth’s land surface is visible in high-resolution detail, and in cities around the world, individual buildings, cars, and landmarks are recognizable to the knowing eye. Since its launch in 2005, Google Earth has been downloaded over 350 million times, and new features (including updated satellite images, real-time weather data, and street-level photographs) 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, design maps tailored to their personal tastes, and overlay location-based annotations directly onto the landscape.

In addition to viewing the visual topography of the globe in Google Earth, one can also search for specific street addresses and businesses in dozens of countries around the world. Select cities are photographed at a super-high resolution of 6 inches per pixel: in Las Vegas, the lettering is legible on a sign advertising Cirque du Soleil’s performance at the Bellagio Hotel, and in Paris, one can count the hundreds of tourists standing in a snaking line, waiting to climb the intricate lattice of the Eiffel Tower. Google Earth enables users to find dining, lodging, shopping, and services based on location, as well as transportation, parks, tourist sites, community centers, and government buildings, by activating content layers embedded in the program. Click on the “Coffee Shops” layer, and icons of steaming mugs appear on the map with directory listings of every Starbucks, Peets, or Local Joe’s in the neighborhood. Click on all the layers, and the surface of the Earth disappears beneath a graphical cacophony of images, text, and logos fed to the map from Google Earth’s vast database of content supplied by users, partners, and advertisers.

Online mapping services are nothing new—MapQuest has been churning out driving directions on the Web for over a decade, and businesses like Travelocity and CitySearch have incorporated searchable maps into their Web sites since the late 1990s. In the last decade, however, the Internet has evolved from a “read-only” interface to a dynamic two-way platform for business and communication services. These days, users not only consume but also contribute content to the Web. “Web 2.0,” as coined by new media publisher Tim O’Reilly in 2004, encompasses the collective production of knowledge and crowd-sourced content that largely defines the Internet today: from blogs, podcasts, and wikis to eBay listings, Amazon ratings, and YouTube videos. [1]

The ability to recombine, or “mash up,” standardized maps with outside data has transformed digital cartography in the few years that have passed since a programmer named Paul Rademacher hacked Google Maps and Craigslist to create the Internet’s first map mashup,, in 2004. Today, with the help of user-friendly interfaces and a host of customizable online mapping applications, nearly any Web-savvy user can design his or her own mashup. At O’Reilly Media’s fourth annual Where 2.0 Conference in San Francisco in May 2008, a Google Maps spokesperson estimated that more than nine million personalized “My Maps” were created online in the last twelve months.

Mashups, with their repetitive visual trope of pushpins on a map, have become a ubiquitous information design tool both on- and offline: house-hunters view real estate listings superimposed on high-resolution satellite images, drivers chart escalating gas prices by intersections around town, and news junkies stream breaking news directly off a map of the world. [2] The practice of attaching geographical coordinates to digital photographs, or geotagging, has become increasingly popular on photo-sharing Websites such as Flickr and Panoramio, and we can now store our photos on a map and browse millions of snapshots and videos superimposed onto the surface of the Earth. By early 2008, New York’s Museum of Modern Art had canonized digital mapping as an artform by prominently featured dozens of mashups and geographic visualizations in its exhibition, “Design and the Elastic Mind,” a twenty-five year survey of experimental technology and interaction design. [3]

The explosion of DIY mapmaking on the Web has resulted in a collective gathering of situated knowledge and personal experiences digitally linked to geographical locations around the world. Yet despite extensive media hype heralding this geo-phenomenon as a “cartographic revolution,” digital mapping programs extend a cultural legacy that has existed for centuries. [5] This essay, an excerpt from my master’s thesis in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts, aims to situate the emergent field of “neogeography” within the larger historical contexts of cartography, new media theory, and cultural studies, with the intent to better understand the social and cultural implications of this visual phenomenon.

The View from Above

Long before airplanes and satellites circled the globe, human beings fantasized about the view from on high. The Greeks created a mythology of powerful gods who looked down upon the Earth from the cosmos, and medieval scholars drew up speculative maps of the world over two hundred years before Magellan’s expedition circumnavigated the globe. As the late historian and cartographer David Woodward writes, “The enormous complexity of life and landscape on the Earth’s surface requires us to construct an analogous world that we can visualize. An obvious way of abstracting and reducing the earth to manageable proportions is by mapping it.” [6] .” Removed from a stationary position rooted to the ground, the gods’ eye view opened up new territories of sight and expanded the realms of knowledge available to the viewer. Today, the desire to pursue the unknown continues to motivate the development of technologies of vision that expand and enhance our perspective beyond the limits of the human eye. Yet the ability to see more of the Earth does not mean that we necessarily know more about it.

The distance gained from an aerial perspective can indeed offer new insight on the land below, but distance, as the new media theorist Lev Manovich observes, also “becomes responsible for creating the gap between spectator and spectacle, for separating subject and object, for putting the first in the position of transcendental mastery and rendering the second inert.” [7] 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, branded and packaged into a ready-made spectacle for our viewing pleasure. We may fly over the Earth at high altitudes, thrilling in the illusion of mastery and control offered by the view from above, but it’s easy to lose oneself in this untethered perspective. Aerial photographs survey the large-scale tracings of human presence on the landscape, but the gaze of the satellite is reductive and universalizing: it does not reveal place names, histories, the viewpoints of individuals on the ground, nor does it trace the bonds of community that hold people together. We now have access to a digital, photographic reproduction of every landmass on Earth, but what do these artificial landscapes communicate? For whom do they speak?

“Space is a practiced place,” writes the French philosopher Michel de Certeau. “Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers.” [8] I offer a parallel construction: The map, geographically defined by cartographers, is transformed into a social space the moment we recognize ourselves in the landscape. Whether it’s by singling out our own roofline in the massive grid of the anonymous city, experiencing the ground-level view from another’s perspective, or investigating the commonalities of a distant culture through a representation of their ties to the land, we seek to better understand our world, and our place in it, through mapping. If aerial photography and satellite vision dissolve the individual into the landscape, interactive mapping programs offer us the potential to re-inscribe the human presence onto an otherwise abstract construction of the Earth. Just as a photograph stimulates visual memory, so does a satellite image or a map of familiar territory. The places we mark, the layers we add, these are the memories and experiences that transform an empty landscape into a social space, encoded with personal meaning.

Ground Truth

Over the course of ten days last October, raging wildfires devastated more than half a million acres in Southern California. NASA tracked the fires with multiple Earth-observing satellites, and uploaded new images daily to Google Earth. In a series of stunning images, massive plumes of smoke billowed off the parched California coastline from Los Angeles down the Baja peninsula. These digitally enhanced landscapes presented a highly sophisticated view of conditions on the ground, virtually in real time. NASA’s pictures assisted the forestry service in fighting the fires, and offered the public an unprecedented view of the natural disaster as it unfolded.

Like any form of photography, satellite images are not objective truths. While many of the NASA images resemble aerial photographs, they are in fact colorized, graphically rendered visualizations of data collected by remote sensors measuring thermal emissions, infrared wavelengths not visible to the human eye, and radar pulses bouncing off the Earth’s surface. [9] Because of their military and scientific origins and their ability to remotely capture endless streams of visual data, we tend to view satellites as official registers, or evidence, of earthly activities. Yet as media theorist Lisa Parks reminds us, the abstraction of satellite images can only be read with the help of deep levels of local validation. [10] The orbital view of the landscape reveals nuances and relationships not visible from the ground, but without context and personal experience—what NASA calls “ground truth”—it is difficult to understand just what these photorealistic images represent. [11]

Susan Myrland was 125 miles from home when she learned that fires were racing toward her neighborhood in San Diego last October. Authorities had closed down the highways, and so, stranded at her weekend home in Palm Desert, Susan followed the movements of the wildfires on a mashup created by the local NPR affiliate, KPBS. Placemarkers and notations on the map detailed the perimeter and status of each fire in San Diego County and provided continuous updates on threatened neighborhoods, road closures, evacuation notices, and shelter availability throughout the area. Reporters in the field and “citizen journalists” across the region sent updates to the radio station via their cell phones, describing what they were seeing unfold before them. In an unprecedented effort, the KPBS team, with the help of San Diego State University (SDSU) and University of California San Diego (UCSD) geographers and researchers, government and city authorities, and dozens of Google employees, joined together to process information for the radio station’s online map. [12] Three days after KPBS launched its mashup, it had been viewed more than 1.2 million times.

On Flickr, a website that allows users to upload and place personal photographs on a map of the world, hundreds of people affected by the fires began posting and sharing their own pictures online. The images on Flickr’s map offered an alternative perspective to the disembodied techno-precision of NASA’s visual data. These pictures, predominantly snapped by amateurs, not only captured the view of the fire as it appeared from different locations on the ground, but also communicated the unique viewpoint of each photographer. Under an image of brilliant flames silhouetting a darkened hillside flecked with orange streetlights, one Flickr member wrote:

Sherril woke me around 3:30am to let me know that the Harris Fire had crested Mt Miguel and other areas near Spring Valley. These shots were taken from our back deck around 4:00am or so. There is a blur from the long exposure time. I tried my best to steady the camera on the deck railing. [13]

While his wife would have preferred him to be packing based on the news reports she was watching on television, Gary Altstadt was not in a hurry. “As close as the fire really looked from my backyard,” he said, “I knew intellectually that it was still pretty far away. When I went online and really mapped it out, sure enough, I could tell that we had some time. Unless the wind shifted, we were going to be OK.” [14]

Unlike the KPBS map, Flickr did not chart the hard statistics of acres burned, houses lost, or civilians evacuated; it was a constellation of highly personal stories tied to a specific place at a single moment in time. Each image represented the situated knowledge of an individual photographer, and the multiple perspectives that emerged created a powerful, collective narrative of human emotion and experience. From her desert outpost, Susan Myrland saw Gary’s photographs on Flickr. Her house was only a quarter-mile away from his, so she contacted him to find out what was happening in their neighborhood. She said later, “His photos were, in a way, reassuring. It was actual, real-time: ‘I’m standing on my deck looking at the fire.’ There was really no map at that point that would have been accurate enough to show that.” [15]

Despite her access to numerous sources of information, both online and through more traditional media channels, the most reliable news that Susan received during the fires was not from a map; it was from personal phone calls and e-mails to her friends and neighbors. The KPBS map provided real-time updates, and both NASA and Flickr offered powerful visuals, but without previous localized knowledge of the actual geography, “It was a very distorted picture,” Susan observed. “Friends and relatives who were not in San Diego were looking at the maps and freaking out, saying, ‘This looks really close to you!’ But if you’re on the ground, seven miles is pretty far away.” This realization did not hit home for Susan until she was driving back into San Diego after five days stranded in Palm Desert. “When I got back and saw things [in my neighborhood] were fine, things were green, that the fire was really much farther away than I imagined, I realized what a grossly disproportionate view I’d had.” [16]

The San Diego fire maps appear to reinforce the much-hyped promise of citizen journalism and the value of crowd-sourced content on the Web. But what is not represented on the maps—the voices of those without Internet access, or the stories of undocumented immigrants who were reported to have been turned away from emergency shelters—dispels the utopian notion that collaborative mapmaking is universally inclusive or any less politicized than traditional cartography. Despite the fact that fires destroyed nearly 40,000 acres in Tijuana, Ensenada, and elsewhere in Baja, there was little mention of these sites in the news—and none on NASA’s Web site. A line drawn onto the map delineates the border between California and Mexico, and like an information firewall, it blocks the flow of data from one country to the next. [17]

Governments, corporations, and communities still have a long way to go to bridge the digital divide that continues to exclude huge segments of the world’s population based on socioeconomics and access to technological infrastructure. Disaster mapping, while a rapidly growing sector with much undeveloped potential, is only one application of the geospatial technologies becoming more widely available to amateur cartographers. In recent years, collaborative community-based mapping programs have successfully been implemented to different ends in remote—and unlikely—locations.

Cultural Mapping

The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), an Arlington, Virginia, nonprofit organization, works with indigenous peoples to preserve cultural and biological diversity in South American rainforests. For the last few years, ACT has equipped tribes in Suriname, Brazil, and Colombia with the technology to map their territories and monitor their forests for incursions by illegal miners, loggers, and “biopirates” who trespass on lands to collect medicinal plants for export. Using laptop computers, handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, and satellite maps provided by these outside conservationists, tribal leaders partner with local government officials to locate and expel illegal plunderers from protected parklands and indigenous territories. Says Vasco van Roosmalen, ACT’s Brazil program director,

Google Earth is used primarily for vigilance. Indians log on to Google Earth and study images, inch by inch, looking to see where new gold mines are popping up or where invasions are occurring. With the newly updated, high-resolution images of the region, they can see river discoloration which could be the product of sedimentation and pollution from a nearby mine. [18]

In late May 2007, with the help of ACT, Surui Chief Almir Narayamoga traveled to the Bay Area headquarters of Google Earth to request additional high-quality satellite imagery that would allow the tribe to monitor loggers and miners, who run clandestine operations on the tribe’s 600,000-acre reserve, located about 1,600 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

Like other environmental and humanitarian organizations that have partnered with Google to bring awareness to such global issues as climate change or the crisis in Darfur, the Amazon Conservation Team hopes to tap into Google Earth’s worldwide audience of 350 million. In 2006, van Roosmalen told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We want people to know that these territories are not just empty swaths of green as seen by satellite, but the homes, supermarkets, museums, and libraries of a people who depend on these areas for their survival.” [19] Through what they call “ethnocartographic” programs, the ACT aims to help indigenous cultures in the Amazon gain legal title to their land, keep destructive outside forces at bay, and negotiate with the outside world while maintaining their own social relations, production practices, and cultural and spiritual traditions.

The maps created through this program have not only helped to validate the land rights of tribes in the Amazon, they have also become valuable repositories of cultural history. “Westerners map in three dimensions: longitude, latitude, and altitude,” explains ACT founder and ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin. “Indians think in six: longitude, latitude, altitude, historical context, sacred sites, and spiritual or mythological sites, where invisible creatures mark watersheds and areas of high biodiversity as off-limits to exploitation.” [20] While I would argue that Plotkin’s assertion unjustly simplifies Western mapping practices—every map describes more than its coordinates—the point that he makes is important: GPS systems help tribal cartographers plot more than the locations of material resources, geographical features, food supplies, medicinal plants, and animal habitats; they also map sacred areas such as ancestral cemeteries, battle sites, and ancient hunting grounds.

But geographical coordinates do not reveal place names passed down through generations, and technology cannot explain the spiritual significance of a particular location. For that, younger members of these tribes have had to rely on the stories of elders. Van Roosmalen described one instance where over 2,000 indigenous names that had never before been registered were added to a single tribal map. “This is extremely important,” he noted, “because behind each name is a story that can serve as a tie to the land.” [21] In some instances, tribesmen reported that elders would spend a half-hour telling the story behind the name before they would reveal the name. As a result, tribal cartographers, traveling through villages and forests, began using tape recorders to capture these stories, then transcribed them into their language and created books to document knowledge long preserved in an oral tradition.

The profound knowledge of the forest ecosystem supplied by tribal elders, combined with the advanced technologies of GPS mapping and Google Earth, have generated a vast amount of data about these territories. Using the tools supplied by the ACT, members of the Trio tribe in southern Suriname have charted, by foot and canoe, some 20 million acres of Amazonian rainforest surrounding their village. The outside conservationists are quick to point out that they provide only the methodology, not direction on what to map. “They know they are making these maps for themselves,” says van Roosmalen. “They decide what goes into these maps. The maps empower them and make them more self-reliant.” [23] Ultimately, however, this self-reliance may lead some tribes to capitalize on their newfound knowledge of the valuable forest resources at their disposal. As a Trio chief in Suriname told a Wired magazine reporter last summer: “The maps have helped us realize our assets.” [24]

It remains to be seen how this technology, and the potential exposure through Google Earth Outreach, will affect the communities that the Amazon Conservation Team aims to serve. In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest comprises over 1.6 million square miles, but recent reports estimate that as much as 20 percent of the forest has been destroyed. [25] Although native tribes control 12.5 percent of the national territory, satellite photographs reveal that these reserves, canopied in green and rich with biodiversity, are often bounded sharply on all sides by encroaching development and clear-cut tracts of exposed ground. Many environmentalists have cautioned that if the indigenous people disappear, the Amazon rainforest will follow. For tribal cartographers in South America, mapping their territory may become more than a political strategy to protect their land, or a mode of cultural preservation; their way of life could depend on it.


In the last few years, the Internet has evolved into a media-rich environment where user-generated content largely dominates information online and neologisms run rampant. Amateur cartographers today are making a name for themselves as neogeographers. Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia (and de facto portal for all things Web 2.0), attributes the term neogeography to Jason Wilson and Di-Ann Eisnor, the co-founders of Platial: The People’s Atlas, one of the first Web-based companies to provide mashup tools for bloggers. In a post on the Platial blog, Eisnor and Wilson borrowed the words of fellow neogeography enthusiast Randall Szott to help elucidate the practice: “Rather than making claims on scientific standards, methodologies of neogeography tend toward the intuitive, expressive, personal, and/or artistic, but may just be idiosyncratic applications of ‘real’ geographic techniques.” [26] This definition is as ambiguous as the practice itself, but points to the significance of a new form of social media that is only in the earliest stages of development. What makes this “new geography” so unique, and potentially meaningful, is that it can be many things to many people; it is about mapping one’s own world on one’s own terms.

Bao Ly, who goes by the user name Baostar, has documented over a thousand places on the 47 maps he has created on Platial. Each map reveals a different aspect of Baostar’s world as he sees it. The self-described “computer geek” has designed a personal atlas of his hometown in Irvine, California, that is as richly detailed, if not more so, as any gazetteer or tourist brochure. These maps strip away the false sheen of objectivity that glosses travel guides and reveal the unique personality and character of the author. On Baostar’s Platial maps, you’ll find Good Takeouts, Flower Shops, Ethnic Restaurants, Late-Night Grub, Orange County Beaches, Irvine Parks, California Piers, businesses that are headquartered in Irvine, Must-See Museums—and the list goes on. Though I’ve never spoken with Bao, I know that he has a sweet tooth and a weakness for sappy teen soap operas. He’s mapped 22 ice cream shops, two-dozen bakeries, and mentions his love cupcakes in more than a few posts. He has plotted locations that appeared on MTV’s reality series “Laguna Beach,” and his “As Seen on the O.C.” map tracks the local hangouts featured on the once wildly popular FOX drama. Mapping the Balboa Fun Zone as the fictional site of “Marissa and Ryan’s first kiss on the Ferris wheel” is certainly an idiosyncratic application of geographic techniques, but it is hardly indicative of the full potential of this technology.

With Platial, users can add text, photographs, video, and audio files to digital maps that can be embedded on anyone’s blog and shared with others. Maps on Platial range from autobiographical visualizations, such as “Where I’ve Lived” or “My First Kiss,” to highly localized neighborhood directories, like Burritoeater’s guide to “Taquerias of San Francisco.” While many of the maps on Platial explore the quotidian (“Grocery Map” or “Los Angeles Yoga Studios”), others venture into more random and esoteric territory: “Religious Dress Around the World,” “Used Book Stores That Stock Science Fiction,” or Baostar’s “Places From Music That Are Real,” to name a few. Each of these maps offers insight into a specific facet of life related to a specific place. But unlike traditional atlases, roadmaps, or encyclopedias, in these maps, Platial’s CEO Di-Ann Eisnor explains, “Human perspective and social interaction supersede latitude and longitude as the dominant modes of orientation.” [27]

Platial enables people to document personal experiences through geography, a practice that has, until recently, been inaccessible to most. “Historically, maps have been removed from people,” said Di-Ann. “They tend to be over-intellectualized, intimidating, hard to read, and definitely hard to create.” [28] Whereas traditional cartography requires huge sums of money and years of training to produce, neogeography democratizes the map, and generates new possibilities for self-expression. “It adds a whole social layer of data on top of the map that has a bigger role in making maps more accessible, more understandable, more welcoming,” she continues. “This kind of information is going far beyond geopolitical boundaries and really allowing people to feel like the world is more accessible, because they are looking at it in a frame that is relevant to them.” [29] Neogeography offers us the opportunity to counter the universalizing distance of satellite vision, and transform the map into a site of human interaction.

Paige Saez, "Hopeless Romantic" Map, detail

Eisnor and Wilson’s concept of social mapping grew out of their enthusiasm for urban exploration and psychogeography, a form of artistic expression defined in 1955 by the French Situationist Guy Debord as: “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” [30] While living in Amsterdam, the couple merged the tenets of psychogeography with performance art to create the HERE game, which Di-Ann describes as “a series of different algorithms and chalk and sticky notes.” [31] Groups of people would go out into the streets and interact with public space. The algorithms were short bits of instructions, such as “Walk three blocks and make an altar out of found objects,” or, “Ask someone which way is north, go opposite direction.” The precise location of each transaction was far less important than the place-specific experiences that unfolded; interaction, exploration, and chance encounters were the primary objectives. When Google Maps opened its application programming interface (API) to outside developers in June of 2005, this pair of entrepreneurs not only found a repository for the situated knowledge they had accumulated while abroad—they also saw their opportunity to bridge business and art, and brought social mapping to the Web.

Today, Platial boasts more than 150 million “points of interest” spread over eight million maps, and the business is growing rapidly. Di-Ann is confident that Platial has the potential to become much more than a map. “The social information on top of the map is becoming more important than the base—it’s humanizing the map.” [32] In the not-so-distant future, rather than searching out street names and highway exits, Di-Ann believes that people will rely much more on a “pure navigation system” similar to the sticky notes and chalk arrows drawn on the pavement in the HERE game: “Go to your best friend’s house and take a left, up towards your old high school.”

This concept of navigation is hardly original. According to Andrew Turner, a digital mapping entrepreneur and former aerospace engineer who wrote O’Reilly Media’s Introduction to Neogeography, it is far closer to how people have been using maps for centuries. “When you start looking at how people used to use maps, it was all about storytelling and relative directions—make a left at this tree and make a right at this mountain, or, ‘This is where our ancestors grew up.’ We lost this aspect of mapping as technology advanced and, particularly, as GIS [Geographical Information Systems] became very precise and very technical, which also meant sometimes very inaccessible, expensive, and difficult to use.” [33] Turner describes neogeography as a resurgence of the colloquial cartography employed by human beings since ancient and medieval times. He writes, “Storytelling, ephemeral location markers, and emergence of new wayfinding schemes have repeated themselves with various rounds of technology and culture.” [34] Despite huge leaps in technological innovation, human nature remains a powerful force in shaping our behaviors and belief systems. Community, identity, a sense of place, tradition… all of these factors determine who we are and how we see the world.

Personal Geographies

Art historian Lucy Lippard describes the lure of the local as “the geographical component of the psychological need to belong somewhere, one antidote to a prevailing alienation.” [35] Because one’s identity and personal history are inextricably linked to place and community, the lure of the local offers a tantalizing counterpoint to the homogenizing force of global commerce, ubiquitous media, and mainstream culture. As the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre famously maintained, “Space is permeated with social relations. It is not only supported by social relations but it is also producing and produced by social relations.” [36] Place is a social practice of bodies moving through space. Memory and experience are formed by human interactions. We learn a city by traveling through it; we document our travels by photographing where we have been. Markings on the landscape are the traces of the production of space—jobs, dwellings, social networks. Community creates a sense of place.

When presented with a virtual globe, a massive database of visual information and technological wonder, invariably our first response is to seek out what we know. As Chikai Ohazama, Google Earth’s co-founder and product manager, confirms, “People tell us that the reason they use Google Earth is because it covers the areas they care about with high-resolution detail—whether it’s Timbuktu, Cabo San Lucas, or Whitiangia, New Zealand.” [37] And what we care about, we map. Whether cognitively plotting the shortest route from our home to our child’s school or retracing the memories of our loves lost or our travels around the world, the geography of our imagination is vast, and constantly changing.

Our visual connection to the landscape is powerful, and the desire to document this relationship manifests itself though neogeography. While the San Diego fire maps communicated critical, real-time information tied to specific locations, the cultural mapping efforts in the Amazon and the social maps on Platial represent the accumulated knowledge—the sense of place—that develops over time. Each example underscores the significance of applying a meaningful spatial context to the flood of information that pervades our daily lives. Social memory is built on storytelling: by inscribing personal narratives and individual experiences onto a shared map, we begin to find a way to “ground truth” abstract satellite vision and create an alternative, human-scale perspective of the world based on situated knowledge, multiple viewpoints, and common ground.



1. Tim O’Reilly, “What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software,” September 30, 2005. (accessed April 7, 2008).
2. See,, and
3. Paola Antonelli, Design and the Elastic Mind. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008).
4. I am borrowing the term “situated knowledge” from feminist scholar Donna Haraway, who refutes the dominant paradigm of the mastering gaze of the god’s-eye view and offers an alternative model of visual objectivity based on partial perspectives and grounded in an embodied “view from somewhere.” See Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No.3 (Autumn, 1988), 581.
5. For a taste of the extensive press coverage of Google Earth and map mashups, see Evan Ratcliffe, “The Whole Earth, Catalogued: How Google Maps is changing the way we see the world,” Wired, 15.07, July 2007, 154-159, or Miguel Helft, “With Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking,” New York Times, July 27, 2006.
6. David Woodward, “The image of the spherical earth,” Perspecta, Vol. 25 (1989), 4.
7. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001), 174.
8. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 117.
9. The images were collected from the Terra, Aqua, EO-1, and QuikScat satellites, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-West satellite. (accessed November 28, 2007).
10. Lisa Parks, Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 96.
11. “Ground-truthing” is a methodology employed by cartographers, meteorologists, and others to analyze and calibrate images collected through remote-sensing technologies such as satellites and aerial photography. NASA defines ground-truthing as “the method of verifying the scientific validity of satellite images and clarifying irregularities in the imagery.” Isaac Lopez and Marc A. Seibert. “Nasa Ground-Truthing Capabilities Demonstrated.” Office of Aerospace Technology, (accessed April 10, 2007).
12. According to Google spokesperson Megan Quinn: “There have been several other instances of My Maps being used for publishing news on natural disasters and current events, but never before on this scale or magnitude.” As reported by Bruce Bigelow, “Team pooled resources to make maps,” San Diego Union Tribune, November 26, 2007. (accessed December 6, 2007).
13. “Harris Fire from my backyard,” caption of photograph taken from GaryKA’s Flickr page: (accessed November 28, 2007).
14. Gary Altstadt, interview with the author, February 5, 2008.
15. Susan Myrland, interview with the author, February 8, 2008.
16. Susan Myrland, interview with the author, February 8, 2008.
17. According to the Associated Press, Mexican officials reported that two wildfires destroyed more than 60 homes in Tecate and Ensenada. No injuries were reported. “Wildfires in northern Mexico destroying more than 60 homes,” North County Times, October 25, 2007. 10/25/news/sandiego/12_56_5510_24_07.txt (accessed December 6, 2007).
18. Rhett A. Butler, “Amazon Conservation Team Puts Indians on Google Earth to Save the Amazon,”, November 14, 2006. (accessed December 8, 2007).
19. Jack Epstein, “Google to harness satellite power for an Amazon tribe,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 2007: A-1.
20. Butler, “Amazon Conservation Team puts Indians on Google Earth to Save the Amazon,” 2006.
21. Butler, 2006.
22. Andy Isaacson, “With the Help of GPS, Amazonian Tribes Reclaim the Rain Forest,” Wired, 15.11 (2007).
23. Butler, “Amazon Conservation Team Puts Indians on Google Earth to Save the Amazon,” 2006.
24. Isaacson, 2007.
25. Joshua Hammer, “Rain Forest Rebel,” Smithsonian. 37. 12 (2007): 40.
26. “What is neogeography anyway?”, May 27, 2006. (accessed December 6, 2007). While Eisnor and Wilson are credited with first popularizing the term “neogeography,” they cite Randall Szott’s writing on the blog Placekraft ( to help pin down the definition.
27. Di-Ann Eisnor, interview with the author, February 15, 2008.
28. Di-Ann Eisnor, interview with the author, February 15, 2008.
29. Di-Ann Eisnor, interview with the author, February 15, 2008.
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