Years ago I visited what was then Czechoslovakia shortly after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. I remember commenting to a local on the difficulty of navigating the city with the available map. He laughed and remarked that the mapping policy of the government had been that if you were supposed to be somewhere, you knew how to get there. If you didn’t know how to get there, you weren’t supposed to be there. According to him, the official state maps implemented this policy. It was an interesting lesson in mapping as a method of social control.
Last week, a story in the Times of India announced that police in India had launched an investigation of Google for a mapathon it organized. The mapathon essentially invited Indians to contribute geographic information to the Google Earth platform with a view to creating richer and better maps of India. The company offered a variety of prizes and incentives to encourage participation.
The official Indian mapping agency, the Survey of India filed the complaint with the police, apparently alleging that the mapathon was both illegal and a threat to national security.
The case is an interesting one. It is certainly true that many states that are vulnerable to terrorism, seek to control public information about certain locations, facilities and installations as a security measure. Certainly, given recent events, no one would argue that the Indian government’s concerns about terrorism are exaggerated. At the same time, in our digital, interactive world, ordinary citizens walk around with powerful computing, recording and communication devices in their purses and pockets. All manner of easily accessible apps and tools exist to create vast repositories of multimedia information about just about anything. In this context, it seems rather futile to resist participatory mapping projects on security grounds. After all, if ordinary citizens can gather and share sensitive geographical data using their mobile phones, so can terrorists. A major company like Google may well be receptive to genuine security concerns over particular data added to their collaborative maps, and might be persuaded to modify, blur or generalize certain entries.
Perhaps the bigger concern in this context is not so much security, as it is the shifting of control over mapmaking from a national mapping organization to a multinational corporation with its headquarters in another country. For countries with a history of oppressive colonization, this may seem like a threatening development. The Survey of India describes its mission in nationalistic terms: “Survey of India bears a special responsibility to ensure that the country's domain is explored and mapped suitably, provide base maps for expeditious and integrated development and ensure that all resources contribute with their full measure to the progress, prosperity and security of our country now and for generations to come.” Maps have always been powerful political and social tools, and there is nothing neutral about how many states have chosen to represent geographic information. The loss of control over one’s national maps to an outside entity may well be experienced as a loss of sovereignty.
But of course, sovereignty, in this context also involves the imposition of one story over alternative narratives. Digital technologies and a globalized society open the doors to competing accounts of our physical, social and political spaces – and such accounts are increasingly difficult to control. This conflict between Google and the Survey of India is almost certainly about more than national security, and the outcome of any police investigation may do little to tell us who the winners or losers will ultimately be.