The Sophistry of Mapping
On August 18th, 2020 Microsoft released the newest incarnation of their Flight Simulator on Steam. The game recreates in excruciating detail the entirety of the Earth’s landscapes, cities, and atmospheres at a 1-1 scale for the player to fly through and explore. However, anomalies and glitches in the matrix soon began to emerge from the in-betweens of this map of geographic data.1 Monolithic structures of glass and steel appeared in the suburbs of Melbourne, Buckingham palace was rendered as a drab old office building, and MAD’s curving towers in Mississauga were replaced by generic pastel tubes. These irregularities were all procedurally generated by a powerful AI, using Bing Maps, to fill in any gaps of information or deliberate omissions of data with something, anything to convince us of the veracity of this digital representation. For centuries maps have long captured the memories and imprinted fantastical imagery of space for the societies that produced them in order to present their vision of the world. In the past these gaps would be filled by imagined lands populated by dragons and giants and sea monsters directly adjacent to detailed plans of ancient cities and trade networks that have lasted into the modern day.
Over the last two centuries, private map-making corporations have emerged to survey and document the reality of the landscapes of the world. With the rise of this corporate competition and in order to avoid their individual work from being plagiarized, mapmakers began deliberately inserting fictitious entries and distorting locations to catch intellectual property thieves.2 These once fantastical interjections were replaced by surreal copyright traps. The most prominent example of a paper town is that of Agloe, New York. This phantom settlement was invented during the 1930s as a copyright trap, before it began to appear on several other maps during the 1950s. When a lawsuit was considered it was discovered that locals referencing a map had established the Agloe General Store transforming this once imagined place into a reality. However, soon after the store closed Agloe again became a cartographic remnant of this fictitious past and was removed from the modern digital maps of Bing and Google.3
With the advent of the digital age, the manipulation and propagandization of irreality and the surreal through cartography has only accelerated with the rise in conflicts between technocratic nations and private corporations over the control of the flow and curation of data to the masses. Though viewed as scientific objects today, the resolution of information and representation of reality through cartography has long been a strategic tool to enforce social constructions and to establish ideals relationships between distinctions of class, race, and religion through geographic boundaries.4 This can be in the mapping of the People’s Republic of China with the deliberate scrambling of geographic data and erasure of internment camps for the Uyghur people in Xinjian, along with the obfuscation of the scale and extent of these re-education and detention centers by scattering the imprisoned population across prisons in neighboring provinces. 5
As a matter of necessity, one of the oldest mapped distinctions has been the delineation between the land and the water. However, with the rising of the tides, the distinction between the ideal image that worldwide governments have of their national boundaries and the forces of climate change have come into active conflict. This can be seen in the United States with the coast of Louisiana where, over the course of the last century, nearly 1880 sq. miles of land has been lost to the shifting tides and the increasingly treacherous waters of the Gulf.6 This has alerted the residents of the coast and eroded the iconic shape of Louisiana, quickly replacing it with a scattered set of territories at the brink of a climate crisis.
As architects we are a part of this continued conflict between the private interest of those corporatized digital map makers and the national interests of individual governments over not just the accurate representation of the world, but reality itself. Therefore it is critical that we who use and mine cartography for information and “truth” recognize that there is nothing harmless or benign about the images they contain, the information they represent, nor the greater interests that produced them. And by creating maps, it is not just a manipulation of our shared reality but a distoriation of the truths of our common past. Moving forward we should all be able to propose and answer the question: When we look at maps, whose reality are we truly seeing?
- Matthew Gault, “How ‘Flight Simulator’ Handles Conflict Zones and Concentration Camps,” Vice, 24 (August 2020): www.vice.com/en_us/article/xg8kjw/how-microsoft-flight-simulator-handles-conflict-zones-and-concentration-camps. ↩︎
- Mark S. Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2018). ↩︎
- Robert Krulwich, “An Imaginary Town Becomes Real, Then Not. True Story.” NPR. (NPR, March 2014.) AccessedSeptember 21, 2020. ↩︎
- Alan Weedon, “Why Large Swathes of Countries Are Censored on Google Maps,” ABC News. (February 2019) Web. ↩︎
- Mengi Li, “Xinjiang Autonomous Region,” Landscapes of Fulfillment, Yale School of Architecture (2019): landscapes-of-fulfillment.org/Xinjiang-Autonomous-Region; Sigal Samuel, “Internet Sleuths Are Hunting for China’s Secret Internment Camps for Muslims,” The Atlantic, (September 2018). ↩︎
- Craig E. Colten, “Cartographic Depictions of Louisiana Land Loss: A Tool for Sustainable Policies,” Sustainability 10.3 (2018): 763, https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/3/763/htm. ↩︎