Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mapping the territory 

I was brought up in the era of the corner shop. It was predominantly a one-man operation (and I use the gendered form consciously, because male ownership was the norm back then). That was the main commercial model and so my known universe was bounded by the the names of the proprietors and their small businesses. Pegg's the butchers, Horobin's the grocers, Glandfield's for newspapers and confectionary (sweets and particularly Anglo bubblegum) and a little further afield, Applebee's with what I thought at the time was a winning combination of electrical goods and toys. They were the outposts, and my empire lay in the streets between them, through which I would wander on errands or simply for diversion. Now I was no cartographer, and in fact I always thought that geography was rather feeble, consisting as it did then of endless rote-learning punctuated with intense bouts of colouring in. But I suppose one thing I learnt though the study of geography was about the use and misuse of maps. Even now, I enjoy reading a good map, mining the information it holds, cursing what it does not tell me. Maps are put to good use by the powerful and map-makers choose what to emphasise as well as what to erase. That might all sound like a thing of the past in our post-colonial digital world. Google Earth and Street View (like all sophisticated technologies) appear to simply tell us the truth. But those applications are the long arm of the corporate digital empire that is Google. Now I quite like Google, but I think it's important to remember that it always has a point of view. I can't quite re-trace my schoolboy peregrinations on Street View. The views are limited and timebound. In the end I'm quite relieved, because the space between those now non-existant corner shops is still my dominion. Reading Jason Farman's piece 'Mapping the digital empire' was a great comfort in this respect.


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