Changing Motivations and Perspectives.

Cartography in the 20th century sure took a sharp turn, didn’t it? The Risk board game map sure doesn’t apply anymore, rather than what we were reading about the 19th century. Not only were multiple and innovative perspectives created, but our perceptions about ourselves as Americans were profoundly changed in ways that were designed by corporations. God bless capitalism?

The way that Americans tended to visualize the nation was changing in the early 20th entury, as James Akerman notices in his chapter concerning road atlases. Now that the national narrative had been completed, and the US stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, there was a need to supplant the Manifest Destiny story with another. Railroads had helped to connect the nation, but were soon seen as limiting with the advent of the automobile. Akerman’s thesis is that through the construction of roads suitable for cars, and the construction of a national road system, that Americans began to understand their relation to the land in a different way. But this did not happen spontaneously, rather it was guided by the oil companies whose profits were driven by the consumers, who happened to be automobile drivers. What happened was a growing consciousness of the nation, its features and the routes to get from point A to B, all facilitated by the companies who were there to make a buck.

With the technological advent of flight and the other advances that arose out of WWII and the Cold War, maps and cartography took on an entirely new if not intrinsic importance. Maps now served as both the means and end to technological advances as intelligence reports were became vital to the state. So this is where our work converges with this historiography of maps and modern cartography. The technological advances through the Corona panoramic program have directly benefited us as GIS historians, not as historians of GIS, but as historians who employ GIS-related technology for our own uses. Cloud’s largely technical article uncovers these advances in cartographic understanding, and postulates that were it not for the intense developments in large-scale cartographic understanding (which lead to GIS), a missile may have been fired. While I think that is a bit of a stretch, I agree that were it not for a meticulous understanding of their enemies, both the US and the USSR may have acted entirely differently.

But still, I think that after reading the Schulten and the Akerman, we can begin to understand these technological advances not as the result of the industrial-military complex, but rather from the desire of Americans and other modern Western people to expand their understanding and view of their surroundings and the world. This theme, while adequately summarized in the chapter by Dillion brings up more interesting questions about how corporatism changes the way that we perceive our surroundings, more or less our income and the general state of the economy. (Americans for Prosperity? Yeah right!) I believe that we need to understand the definitive power of maps not as charts of topography and geography, but as tools that tell us about ourselves, and what others want to impress upon the population. I realize that I am sounding like Harley in my rant, but I am beginning to believe that in order to best understand the ways that maps have shaped our perceptions of our surroundings, it is important to understand where and why the maps were produced. Adequately understanding the reason for production is important for any historical source, and is even more important with maps since they are a product of material culture.

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10 comments

  1. Alex

    Learning about the power of maps, I am also skeptical about Cloud’s argument that cartographers prevented the Cold War. I would rather think that the nuclear weapons were not used because of the fear that their usage would destroy all the earth. Moreover, the fact that there was all this conspiracy going on, might very well lead to the possibility that cartographers were sometimes unaware of what they were mapping.

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  3. rosendof

    After reading Ackerman, it’s hard to deny the commercial origins of these road maps. I think you hit on a good point about what Americans wanted to see portrayed in their maps. Harrison’s comeback to his critics was basically, ‘hey, people want to see my maps, and they sell.’ But I think it’s important to see the relationship between that and commercial/governmental interests. Is it us using maps to portray what we want or ‘them’ limiting what we can portray and disguising it as our choice? (Too conspiracy-theoryish? Am I way off base here?)

    • Rosendo,

      I think that what I was intending to say is that too often I think of these maps as the result of some higher power like what Harley was saying at the beginning of the semester. I think that the advances that makes the biggest difference in public perception of space and time come from what wells well and what generates the most interest. Sure the road maps and Harrison maps from WWII are what we use and what people know. But do most people know what a GIS map is and the technology? I think that the mapmakers only have a certain degree of agency, and that the market drives the rest. I don’t think it’s too conspiracy theoryish… I like to be paranoid. It keeps me questioning my sources.

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  5. Lindsey

    I would actually disagree with the statement “But still, I think that after reading the Schulten and the Akerman, we can begin to understand these technological advances not as the result of the industrial-military complex, but rather from the desire of Americans and other modern Western people to expand their understanding and view of their surroundings and the world.” I think that what the articles this week showed us was that both military action and innovation as well as commercial consumption come together to create maps and their meanings in the modern era. Neither interpretation is complete because they look at the world of the map in a bubble. I think these readings were assigned together because each has what the other lacks – technical innovations and cultural perspectives.

    • I think that just like any other intellectual shift, or a change in public perception there are always more than one factor involved. I still stick to my statement that the industrial-military complex did not change the way we look at maps. Especially in the Cold War with the speed of technological advance, cartography and maps were shown to illustrate and depict far more information than they could before. And as many problems as I may personally have with capitalism, I still think that it is a very efficient system for choosing the most efficient and engaging forms of information. If it’s boring or inefficient, then people don’t buy it. Much like my response to Rosendo, I think that the technologies, especially GIS have enabled cartographers to achieve far more impressive feats of mapmaking, but ultimately in our overwhelming market economy if something isn’t engaging it will fail. (unless it’s propped up by a powerful outside force, say Fox News or Microsoft, but that’s an entirely different story.)

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