1. Maps, Society, and Technology

Steven Manson and Laura Matson

People have long used maps, from scratching their worldview on clay tablets thousands of years ago to people today creating sophisticated web-based maps to change their societies. Alongside nanotechnology and biotechnology, the White House touts mapping as one of the three most important industries of the 21st century, and one that accounts annually for a trillion dollars of economic activity. Mapping is an essential form of inquiry across the arts, humanities, and sciences that uses geospatial technologies to gather data on people and places. Mapping technologies—ranging from the earliest forms of drawing on clay tablets to modern satellite imaging and sharing information on web-based social networks—spring from and play out in a social context, exemplifying the interplay of society and technology.

This book is about how to read, use, and create maps. Our exploration of maps will be informed by a contextual understanding of how maps reflect the relationship between society and technology, and how mapping is an essential form of scientific and artistic inquiry. We will also explore how mapping is used to address a variety of societal issues, such as land use planning and political gerrymandering to selling yoghurt. You will gain insight into the technical underpinnings of mapping as a science approach, complement on-going interest and activities, or provide an applied focus for research or policy.

This chapter will introduce you to:

  • Basic social and technical elements of maps
  • A very short history of mapping
  • Mapping and liberal education

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to identify basic characteristics of mapping, its history, and important ways that mapping, society, and technology interact.

1.1 Maps, Society, & Technology

The standard or dictionary definition of a map usually revolves around the idea that a map is a representation, usually on a flat surface, of an area. The Wiktionary, for example, defines a map as “a visual representation of an area, whether real or imaginary.”

This definition is not very useful on its own, so in order to figure out what maps are about, we usually instead look at what maps do.

In particular, maps:

  • Show an area larger than we can see. Most often this view is from above but not always.
  • Present information concisely, especially the features of most interest to the user.
  • Demonstrate spatial relationships.
  • Show things we cannot see directly, such as minerals below ground or records of daily temperatures.

It is also helpful to look at kinds of maps in addition to what they do. We can distinguish between two major kinds of maps: reference maps and thematic maps.

Reference maps store data and show a variety of features for variety of uses. These maps function like general store houses of information. The figure below is a reference map of China because it stores a variety of information, including transportation routes, rivers, and names of water bodies.

Reference map of ChinaReference map of China. This map is considered a reference map because it shows many different features of interest, such as rivers, roads and boundaries. [1]

Thematic maps highlight specific themes. Their chief goal is to focus the user’s attention on specific features or characteristics. The figure below has two thematic maps that each draw the user’s attention to a single idea or theme. The other information, such as the outlines of states, is only provided to help understand the main theme—vegetation and population, respectively.

Thematic maps of Thailand
Thematic maps of Thailand. These maps are considered thematic because they focus on a single item or theme. On the left is a categorical thematic map showing nominal classes of vegetation in 1974, and on the right is a quantitative thematic map showing ordinal classes of population density in 1974. [2]

Regardless of whether a map is thematic or reference, it is essentially a technology in that it is the manifestation of knowledge gained from many fields and forms of knowledge. These include cartography, land surveying, remote sensing, computer science, information science, and social science. A map is also a social entity, in that society affects everything from the underlying data used in the map through how it is processed into information, converted into knowledge about the world, and ultimately turned into intelligence that is used for action.

1.2 A Very Short History

The history of mapping is long, rich, and complicated. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the history of mapping and maps. Here, we look at a very general outline; note that we are only looking at a few representations, and are focusing primarily on European and North American maps. There are long histories of mapmaking in most regions of the globe. In thinking about maps, it helps to distinguish between literal maps, which were meant to show actual things and places, and figurative maps, which show conceptual or imagined places.

Early Maps (25000 BCE+). People have probably been scratching maps into dirt with sticks for longer than they have been using words. The figure below shows a few maps made in around 600 BCE (Before Common Era) that traces relationships between cities and mythical places and ideas.

Babylonian Map of the World
Babylonian Map of the World. This map traces relationships between cities and mythical places and ideas (~600 BCE). [3]

Greeks (800-100 BCE). The Greeks were producing fairly high-quality and accurate (so, literal) maps of the region around the Mediterranean Sea and were among the first peoples to discover earth’s circumference. Eratosthenes (276-195 BCE) is widely credited for this achievement.

World According to Hecataeus
World According to Hecataeus. Reconstruction of the literal map that the Greeks produced of the Mediterranean Region. [4]

Medieval Maps (1100-1400s). In Europe during the Dark Ages, maps took a turn towards the figurative, often in aid of advancing religious viewpoints of the world. An example is the T and O Map below, where the T is the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Don Rivers dividing the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa; and the O represents the encircling ocean. Given its religious significance, Jerusalem was generally placed in the center of the map and because the sun rose in the east, Paradise (representing the Garden of Eden) was considered as being in remote Asia. This map captures aspects of reality, such as the relative locations of water bodies and continents, but is a step back from past maps in terms of realism.

T and O map
T and O map. This map by Isidore of Seville where the T is the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Don Rivers dividing the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa; and the O represents the encircling ocean. [5]

At this time, non-European cartographers were developing literal maps. Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani as-Sabti, or simply Al-Idrisi (1100–1165), was an Arab geographer, cartographer and Egyptologist who lived in Sicily at the court of King Roger II. He travelled the Mediterranean world and developed advanced maps of the world, like the one here.

Al-Idrisi’s map of the world
Al-Idrisi’s map of the world. Al-Idrisi was a geographer, cartographer and Egyptologist who lived in Sicily at the court of King Roger II. He traveled the Mediterranean world and developed advanced maps. [6]

Age of Exploration (late 1400s+). European countries embarked on a period of exploration in the 1400s that reshaped the world. Many nations from around the globe had intrepid explorers before this time, but this period saw a rapid increase in maps being made for the explicit purpose of navigation. Chinese cartographers were developing maps for navigation but also as a way to understand history, as below, where Ch’üan Chin and Li Hui developed the Map of Historical Emperors and Kings and of Integrated Borders and Terrain.

Historical map
Historical map. Chinese cartographers developed this map in 1402 of historical empires, borders, and terrain. [7]

The Cantino Map, shown below, is one of the earliest surviving maps showing Portuguese discoveries around the world. It is named after Alberto Cantino, who successfully smuggled it from Portugal to Italy in 1502. The Cantino Map, like others of its kind at the time, held military, political, and economic significance. Given that such maps were being used to sail ships and lay claim to places, mapping became more concerned with providing literal and accurate representations of reality.

Cantino Planisphere
Cantino Planisphere. Portuguese discoveries as of year 1502. [8]

Thematic Mapping (late 1600s+). From the 17th century onward, more people made thematic maps. As discussed above, thematic maps focus on a particular idea or theme, as opposed to serving multiple goals as a reference map. The map below shows travel flows out of Dublin and was one of the first maps designed to convey a sense of flow or movement, namely, where the width of lines were proportional to the number of passengers travelling by rail.

Rail flows out of Dublin
Rail flows out of Dublin. One of the first maps that conveys a sense of flow or movement (1837). The width of lines are proportional to the number of passengers travelling by rail. [9]

Analytical Mapping (1800s+). Related to thematic mapping is analytical mapping, where maps are used to explore the role of location and space to answer questions. One the most interesting early examples of analytical mapping was the case of John Snow, an English physician. He investigated the outbreak of cholera in London in 1854. At the time, no one knew it was a water-borne disease. Dr. Snow spoke with residents and determined that many of the afflicted were drawing water from a public well in Broad Street. He established that people with the disease were clustered around the pump and convinced the authorities to discontinue its use. Dr. Snow is credited as being among the first scholars to consider how a spatial pattern could result from a specific process and to produce maps about his findings.

Snow’s map of cholera
Snow’s map of cholera. John Snow developed this 1855 map to investigate a Cholera outbreak. The Broad Street Pump is circled in red. [10]

Geographic Information Science (1960s+). The advent of computing in the 1940s and 1950s led quickly to the foundation for the use of computers in mapping. A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer system used to store, display, and analyze spatial information. The field concerned with this use of computers became known as Geographic Information Science (GIS) and has become synonymous with mapping for many practitioners, although technically Cartography is considered the art and science of making maps. As we examine later in the text, GIS can be used to make some truly terrible maps while a cartographer can make beautiful and useful maps using a variety of approaches. GIS excels at bringing together many layers of data for a location and conducting sophisticated analysis.

GIS layers
GIS layers. These maps show attributes for part of the state of Wisconsin, United States. Geographic information systems are very helpful in that they allow investigators to store, manipulate, and analyze data on a large variety of phenomena. [11]

1.3 Maps & Liberal Education

Liberal education explores how creative insights and knowledge are acquired and used, as well as how they change over time. Mapping is an important way of knowing and changing the world. Liberal education engages you, as both a student and a global citizen, through multiple forms of learning that include reading, fieldwork, group experiences, lab work, writing, and other creative activities. These are important components of a broader education that gives you the ability to see multiple sides of an issue, develop critical reasoning abilities, and create an ethical compass to guide you in your lifelong participation in society as a knowledgeable, thoughtful, and engaged citizen.

1.3.1 Inquiry and Mapping

Artists, scientists, and policy makers are among the many people who use mapping technologies to describe and analyze human experiences and behavior. We examine how individuals and organizations use maps, both as tools and objects of analysis.

Mapping relies on a number of fundamentals, from data collection to science approaches, ranging from mapping data, using symbolization to best represent data, simplifying and classifying data via visual and statistical methods, and then finally analyzing data and maps with a range of methods.

We identify key mapping resources and evaluate their quality. We examine the science and policy dimensions of data and mapping technologies in order to better understand their promise and pitfalls. More broadly, we discuss the role of various individuals and organizations in providing map-based analyses on a range of issues.

We examine the roles that individuals play in their cultural, social, economic, and political worlds. We ask questions about what surveillance practices mean for individuals and society one week, for example, while in another we consider how individuals can take advantage of the ubiquity of mobile mapping technologies to change the way they understand and effect change in the world. Mapping offers a multidisciplinary framework with which to understand a range of local, national, and global issues. It also involves engaging in a process of critical evaluation of maps produced by various individuals, social groups and researchers.

1.3.2 Society, Technology, and Mapping

We examine the measurable impacts mapping technologies have on society. Mapping is a trillion-dollar enterprise that fuses fast-evolving technologies with rapidly changing societal practices. What does it mean for individuals and society that most mobile phones and many web-applications like Facebook can track your location in a way that was not possible just a few years ago? Should the government track our every movement? Should parents or schools track their children? Companies their employees or customers? These are not hypothetical questions. Tens of millions of people are being tracked right now, including you if you are reading this on a computer or phone or any other internet-connected device.

We examine the science and engineering behind mapping technologies to better understand their promise and pitfalls. How does GPS tracking work, and what are the limitations of its functionality? Importantly, are these limitations clear to its users? How do crowd-sourced maps compare to more traditional atlases in their accuracy and adaptability? How do these different methods of gathering mapped data affect the way these maps are used?

We discuss how society has fostered the development of mapping technologies. What does it mean that mapping technologies such as satellite imaging of the earth, GPS units, or the spatially-aware internet owe their existence and continued evolution to military research?

We examine how various social groups put mapping technologies to use. We explore how maps are used in many ways, including to tell lies, sell products, win elections, and save lives. We look at mapping from multiple perspectives, from developers of technology to users and other people affected by the technology. Mapping is a useful lens through which to understand interactions between society and technology, as mapping technologies are driven by social imperatives and these technologies in turn change with society.

1.4 Conclusion

Mapping is an essential form of inquiry across a wide range of domains. Mapping also represents the interplay of society and technology, which has been going on for thousands of years. From the earliest forms of writing to modern satellite imaging and web-based social networks, mapping methods spring from, play out in, and shape our social context.

With the advent of GIS, people experience how spatial data, analysis, visualization and thinking are transforming our society in myriad ways. Billions of people use technologies such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Google Maps, Yelp, and Uber. Governments use mapping to identify crime hot-spots, plan social interventions, and identify routes to evacuate vulnerable populations from harm. Companies use spatial analysis to site stores, evaluate supply chains, and determine how much to charge for goods and services. Researchers combine spatial data gleaned from maps, satellites, smart phones, sensor networks, and social media. They help commuters plan how to minimize travel time; farmers to best plant and protect crops; epidemiologists to identify emerging disease hot-spots; emergency planners to develop smarter evacuation routes; policy makers to visualize spatiotemporal climate-change scenarios; and first responders to use high-resolution imagery to map areas of need.


For more information about mapping and GISc:

  1.  In the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.
  2. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0. Adapted from Adrienne Gruver (2016). Cartography and Visualization. https://www.e-education.psu.edu/geog486/node/1848 Courtesy of University of Texas.
  3. CC-BY Jessie Siebold (2012); used with permission http://www.myoldmaps.com/maps-from-antiquity-6200-bc/title-babylonian-world-map/
  4. CC-BY Jessie Siebold 2012; used with permission. http://www.myoldmaps.com/maps-from-antiquity-6200-bc/109-herodotus/
  5. Public Domain. By Isidore of Seville. File has extracted from another file: Etimologías - Mapa del Mundo Conocido.jpg, Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=164605
  6. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Jessie Siebold, used with permission. http://www.myoldmaps.com/early-medieval-monographs/219-al-idrisi-world-maps/
  7. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Jessie Siebold, used with permission http://www.myoldmaps.com/late-medieval-maps-1300/untitled.html
  8. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. By anonymous Portuguese (1502) - Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena, Italy, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26117950
  9. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Adapted from Atlas to accompany 2d report of the Railway Commissioners Ireland 1838. https://digital.ucd.ie/view/ivrla:45724
  10. Public Domain. John Snow; Published by C.F. Cheffins, Lith, Southampton Buildings, London, England, 1854 in Snow, John. On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, 2nd Ed, John Churchill, New Burlington Street, London, England, 1855. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2278605
  11. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Steven Manson, 2015