‘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.