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Pouty Posh Posse Protests Populist Peeping

April 3, 2009

I won’t do it again, I promise. But I lie.

ZOMG! Google Black Helicopters! (credit: CC Byrion)

ZOMG! Google Black Helicopters! (credit: CC Byrion)

Some residents in Broughton, an affluent Buckinghamshire village, want to live off the grid, it seems. They moved away so they wouldn’t have to look at poor people, and that means they don’t want poor people looking at them, either. The streetview team might as well have been the black helicopters for these folks. When one guy spotted the black Opel with a camera on its roof, he “rushed round banging on neighbours’ doors, and soon had a posse surrounding the driver”. And it seems that a number of people and places, including Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, have been removed from the service. Those poshies who were afraid of poors looking at their swimming pools and fantasising about filling them with scrumpy pee, they could merely have clicked some links and had their village removed, but at least the dramatics make a good story. Now, I’m not one to slam people for their privacy concerns, but it brings up a couple of interesting points about mapping.

One, until digital mapping, the idea of creating a map with pretty much everything on it was ludicrous. Crazy talk! This snippet from Jorge Luis Borges, which was republished in an essay by Umberto Eco, who wrote an extended riff on the same topic, was actually the inspiration for my now-mostly abandoned academic research on cartography and its relationship to lived space. Obviously, the project of describing or depicting all that there is in the universe remains impossible, but maps need not be quite as selective as they once were. It creates the illusion that digital mapping has eradicated the need for selectivity — surely, that’s everything, isn’t it? — but that’s not the case, even if people weren’t opting out of it. And the more we choose to depict, the more difficult it is to find stuff. If you show everything, you might as well not have a map at all. What’s left out is just as important as what’s shown.

And two, what’s also interesting is that early maps largely empasised the high-status locations in a landscape, especially in bird’s eye view or early planimetric maps. Castles and churches were drawn at a larger-than-life scale, and a lot of the lower-status settlements and features were omitted, sometimes for reasons of space and selectivity, but mostly because until at least the 18th century, maps weren’t intended to show everything. They were statements about a landscape, and they generally served a specific purpose, or at least a narrow range of them. They were forms of surveillance, in a way, because they allowed map users — who were themselves from the upper echelons — to create an image that helped them to pretend the poor folk didn’t exist, to emphasise their own roles, and to downplay the importance of these lower orders. They knew they were there, sure, but their concerns wouldn’t be factored into many major decisions about territory or government. When they were shown, often it was a reminder that they needed a bit of watching. If you were affluent, you probably wanted to be on one of these early maps, to be marked out as someone who matters. But now they’re the people who are kicking up the most fuss (apart from the totally valid concerns about privacy in general; I’m talking about more specific fusses).

The Broughton residents’ protest reminds me of an anecdote I think I stuck into every conference paper I ever gave because it got people’s attention, and it hammered home the point that maps were not just these objects to which the hoi polloi were oblivious.

Bartlett's map of the Fort at Blackwater, early 1600s (Held in TCD Map Library)

Bartlett's map of the Fort at Blackwater, early 1600s (Held in TCD Map Library)

Richard Bartlett was a celebrated mapmaker at the turn of the 17th century, following Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, through his campaign in Ulster. At the time, much of Ireland had been mapped at least to some degree, but mapmakers couldn’t get into Tyronnell, now Donegal; all that was around were some rudimentary maps, drawn largely from hearsay, I suppose. A lot of mapping at the time was done by hearsay, by cogging off of other people’s work, and by half-arsed measuring by some poor mapmaker whose tedious job was probably rendering him prematurely blind and physically impaired. But Donegal was wooded, heavily protected, and the locals presumably wouldn’t have provided the necessary hospitality to mapmakers. It was Here Be Monsters country.

Bartlett was able to get into Donegal, and he made a map just fine. The locals responded by chopping off his head. The event happened in the first couple of years of the 17th century, but is generally known from a 1609 account, which uses the story to note that it was after this that mapmakers travelled under armed guard. It was likely more complicated than all of this, but it makes a nice, neat example. There are lots of stories of people fighting back against being mapped, largely because some knob comes into your yard with a theodolite, you’re probably going to react. One surveyor in Munster in the mid-1580s was pelted with stones from the top of a tower house. You hear stories all the way up through the 19th century about people deliberately sending mapmakers off-track with false information.

Even those who didn’t use maps, or didn’t quite know what they were, would have known what a map meant for them, and what it had meant for others. They knew these people weren’t coming in to take measurements in order to hand out free money. No, mapping and surveying were, at the time, referred to as ‘discoverie’, and many people, like the residents of Broughton, and the opter-outers on Google Streetview, are not interested in being discovered. It’s interesting to see the shift, that in early maps it was then the people who were perhaps less affluent, or at least less powerful (because not all of the Gaelic Irish would have been peasantry) who were largely ignored on the map itself, although their lives would certainly have been affected by the larger project of which the maps were part. A land grab, colony, plantation, or other thing that was not going to work out well for the locals.

It’s equally interesting to see what hasn’t changed, that mapping still feels like surveillance, even if we’re not being watched in realtime. Even if it’s just a snapshot of a landscape — and Google Streetview is just that, literally — it still seems unsettling, this sort of simulacrum we’re creating. The way clones and androids and wax museums freak us out, so do maps. Even though in our quotidian use of them, they seem so very benign, the process of mapping is still a series of conflicts and complicated discourses. It’s unlikely that any Google employee will be decapitated, but then, they’re far from finished, and it’s hard to say Where Be Monsters.

And anyway, it seems we would be wiser to worry about who’s watching us use our phones.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. sorca permalink
    April 4, 2009 12:29 pm

    here be a monster intrigued.
    enjoying the words, lady xxx

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