Every so often, the world considers what mapping really is and why it matters. Determining what cartographic elements to include and how spatial entities are represented on a map have long been subjects of occasionally-esoteric study, but sometimes it takes a major geo-political action to remind the non-geographers among us what power and influence these decisions assume.
To say that maps are pretty hot right now is to laughably understate their current popularity in media culture and beyond. News media outlets rely increasingly on maps to communicate a wide range of information and, subsequently, their readers and viewers continue to use these graphic definitions of how the world is ordered to create or update a common understanding of political, economic, and cultural distributions of power (for my money, there is really no better concise or entertaining explanation for how this can work than is described here).
Similarly, interactive online map environments have enjoyed a rapid ascent in popularity and authority as go-to tools not only for viewing the world, but also for hosting user-generated map mashups to represent geo-coded information that they volunteer within it. Collectively, these recombinant map-information products can be well-understood as “a digital sixth sense”; the growing ubiquity of data-driven mobile devices, in particular, allows people to immediately incorporate such digital representations of a location (imbued with judgement on what is or is not deemed important there) in perceiving and assigning value or character to the location in physical space. Given this context, the controversial decision to recognize Crimean secession from Ukraine or not is a Big Deal for cartographers and geoweb/Web 2.0-ers, alike.
Google Maps is pretty much the undisputed global leader in popular geographic visualization and as such, countless media sources and neo-geographers use it as a base map. In this way, it extends its influence far, FAR beyond its own website. Google is no stranger to the kinds of perils and pitfalls that may arise when political boundaries are improperly delineated. Ironically, in fact, nothing makes a stronger case for its authority as the de facto digital globe than a recent conflict resulting from a miss-marked border, as described here:
“There may not be a company out there that understands the consequences of bad cartography like Google does. In 2010, Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica because Google Maps’ border between the two countries was off by about 1.7 miles. Nicaraguan troops took over the territory Google said it owned, and eventually the Organization of American States and the United Nations Security Council had to be called in.”
So how to handle the contested annexation of Crimea? Understandably, given this history, Google has opted for a cautious “watch which way the wind is blowing” approach. Crimea presently remains Ukrainian in The World According to Google Maps, but perhaps the winds are changing. National Geographic announced today that it will update its maps to reflect Crimean secession just as Google’s competitors and Web 2.0 sites like Wikipedia are still engaged in debate over which course of action is correct. That being said, I’d wager that Google’s decision will be instrumental in calling the “victor” in Russia’s Ukrainian adventure given (1) the high degree of familiarity with and trust the public places in the authority of Google Maps and (2) the reality that every map that is or has been mashed with it will reflect any change to the Russia-Ukraine border.
Update: I just read this fantastic article which goes into greater depth on the subject and you should absolutely check it out.