‘The Agnostic Cartographer’: Google Maps and Geopolitics

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  07.26.10 | 5:21 PM ET

Washington Monthly takes a look at the latest geopolitical kerfuffle touched off by the web giant. This time around, it’s a disputed area on the India-Tibet border that suddenly appeared on Google Maps “sprinkled with Mandarin characters, like a virtual annex of the People’s Republic.” The Indian blogosphere was not amused.

Here’s writer John Gravois on why the nature of Google Maps makes it particularly prone to these sorts of international incidents:

Rather than produce one definitive map of the world, Google offers multiple interpretations of the earth’s geography. Sometimes, this takes the form of customized maps that cater to the beliefs of one nation or another. More often, though, Google is simply an agnostic cartographer—a peddler of “place browsers” that contain a multitude of views instead of univocal, authoritative, traditional maps. “We work to provide as much discoverable information as possible so that users can make their own judgments about geopolitical disputes,” writes Robert Boorstin, the director of Google’s public policy team.

Ironically, it is that very approach to mapping, one that is indecisive rather than domineering, that has embroiled Google in some of the globe’s hottest geopolitical conflicts. Thanks to the logic of its software and business interests, Google has inadvertently waded into disputes from Israel to Cambodia to Iran. It is said that every map is a political statement. But Google, by trying to subvert that truth, may just be intensifying the politics even more.


Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.


2 Comments for ‘The Agnostic Cartographer’: Google Maps and Geopolitics

Vacation Ideas 07.27.10 | 2:38 AM ET

He had brought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!
Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the bestó
A perfect and absolute blank!”

-Lewis Carroll

Aditi L (gaytravel.com/blog) 07.27.10 | 12:33 PM ET

This is so interesting! I’m impressed that Google has a sophisticated and well constructed policy regarding geopolitical disputes.

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