Maps and Mapping: A general introduction

by Nick Keys, CAMRA Research Team:

Aboriginal Australia MapNouvelle Holland
Left: The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Isandler Studies (AIATSIS) Map of Aboriginal Australia based on language grouping. Right: A pre-Captain Cook map of Asutralia made by the Frenchman Jacques Nicolas Bellin in 1753.

1. Maps serve interests

It has long been recognised that maps do not simply reflect and represent a geographic territory, but that they help shape and control that territory. This is the power of maps. They are less like pictures of the world and more like arguments being made about the world. For example, in the AIATSIS map of Aboriginal Australia pictured above, it is acknowledged that the boundaries between areas are not exact, it represents larger language groups, within which diverse clans, dialects or individual language groups may well exist. Despite this, the map shows the rich linguistic diversity within indigenous Australia. For me, this map makes the powerful argument against the idea of pre-Settlement Australia as empty, as Terra Nulllius. It argues that it was culturally and linguistically full and prompts us - or me, at least - to think more about Aboriginal Australia and its great worth. So maps serve interests, and those interests can be good ones. Important things can be mapped and therefore brought into people's consciousness.

2. Maps are for using

For all their power maps, of course, are for using. How often do we go a single day without making use of a map? In street directories, train stations, bus stops, shopping centres, on the news, computers, iPhones. Whether physical or digital, whether on a piece of printed paper or via satellite on a computer screen, contemporary life is saturated with maps. They are - apart from our bodily senses - the primary modes of locating and choosing our trajectories through the world.

3. We are what is mapped

The history of cartography tells us that its goal was to produce reliable pictures of things in the world, things like continents, nations, states, cities, towns, zones, councils, precincts, parks, etc. In fundamental ways this remains the goal, however, aided by the development of satellite technology, mapping is increasingly done by groups of people whose interests are not primarily cartographic. This frees the map to take on a new subject, or perhaps, allows it to reveal the subject it was secretly mapping all along: us. We are what is mapped. A new iPhone application is a good example to demonstrate this. The application is called Ghost Runner and it is for people who are serious about running. The application will map the route a runner takes as well as the time it takes to complete the run. The next time they run the course the iPhone shows them a moving line across the course in real time, giving them a "ghost" of themselves to race against. But this kind of self-mapping goes beyond geography. Mapping, in the widest sense of the word, is what almost everyone is doing. Scientists are mapping the human genome, cognitive scientists are mapping the neuronal assemblies of the brain, meteorologists are mapping the weather, climatologists are mapping the heating of the earth, human geographers are mapping cultural activity, stockbrokers are mapping market trends... just to mention a few examples. This explosion of mapping suggests that it is a one of the most powerful methods we have of understanding and interacting in the world.

The references informing this text, and many more, are in the Bibliography . . .