Digital Mapping – The Importance of Space, Place and Time

Iphone Sukey Author:  Sam Hind, Phd Student, University of Warwick attached to the ERC project Charting the Digital (http://digitalcartography.eu/project.html).

Digital Maps intimately connect the concepts of space, place and time. Each is a dynamic term reaching across bodies and technologies, and none can be considered a priori – as pre-existing epistemological formations. That is, each comes into its own through an iterative process between material worlds, everyday life and imaginative experiences.

Space is not simply Euclidean space – although everyday usage of digital maps is certainly predicated upon geometric calculations and built upon a Cartesian coordinate system. Each pushpin placed onto a map has a unique position. Each building, tree or road can occupy a specific set of coordinates. But this does not explain how digital maps are engaged with and wilfully underplays the performative nature of their use. Those who have conceptualized space (human geographers, urban theorists etc.) emphasize this interplay between technology (the digital map) and human subject. In a contemporary mould some have attempted to collapse these epistemological boundaries. For example, with digital maps we cannot say with any certainty where the map producer ends and the map consumer begins. Digital maps are distributive technologies – people can make and re-make their own maps. As a result, we belie a shift in agency if we uphold these agential compartments and the production of space is only gifted to cartographers. Although certainly abstract to a degree space is nonetheless real. This fundamental shift in the curation of space has intense political dimension. Think Kashmir. Think the West Bank.

Place, although fixed by street-names, maps and signs, is bound up with meaning, experience and belief. The map by its very nature essentializes these meanings in paper, in stone, and increasingly on the interfaces of mobile devices. Criticism of Apple’s new Map application predominantly centred on labelling errors. Places were wrongly scaled (city x as town x), inaccurately located (place x as location y not x) and miscategorised (hospital x as shopping mall x). In a moment of technological failure reliance upon digital maps was suddenly cast as insecure, fragile and unusable. Digital maps reify place but they can also overhaul it. Spaces of political protest can become immortalized as significant cultural places – resonating through maps and other inscriptive devices. Think Tahrir Square in Cairo. Think Zuccotti Park in New York.

Time, though standardized by Coordinated Universal Time and materialized by measuring technologies such as clocks, watches, sundials and chronometers can complicate and affect in varying degrees. Time can be said to ‘pass quickly’ if one is thrilled or engaged by something, or as ‘passing us by’ or ‘going slowly’ if one is complacent or bored. Maps suppose order and as much as they fix space and place they embody speed too. Digital maps can be updated, coded, recalibrated, visualized, layered, embedded, linked to, ‘posted’ and ‘tweeted’. They can be uploaded and downloaded within minutes but how easily can they be forgotten? Digital maps have the power to convey a reality although in truth they lie. They can present the transient (protest march, occupation) or the enduring (private property) and are enrolled in the political nature of verifying each (protests as spectacular and momentary, private property as secure and relentless).

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